The usual image of Rosa Parks is of a docile woman who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, because her feet were tired from a hard day’s work. Her act is credited with bringing an end to segregated busing in the South.
But there is much more to Rosa Parks than a tired seamstress, and much more to what went into winning desegregation than her one courageous act. Importantly, her refusal to give up her seat led to the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a year-plus struggle that would lead to an important victory and become a catalyst to the civil rights movement.
In Jeanne Theoharis’s excellent new book The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, the author separates myth from reality. She explains that Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat that December day in 1955 had less to do with her feet being tired than that Rosa, at forty-two-years-old, was a well-known activist in the community and had long objected to the treatment of Blacks on the city buses, as had many others. Rosa worked with the NAACP and was politically active on many fronts, including organizing against violence and sexual assault of women; working with youth to try to desegregate the library, where Blacks were not allowed to check out books; and she worked for years to try and stop the execution of a young Black man, Jeremiah Reeves, but was unsuccessful.
Not long before December 1955, Rosa also had attended an important political retreat at the Highlander Folk School, titled “Racial Desegregation: Implementing the Supreme Court decision.” For two weeks, she attended workshops and met and talked with other activists. It had a profound effect on her. She met and was inspired by both Ella Baker and Septima Clark—both would become lifelong friends.
Only a few months before she refused to give up her seat, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till had been tortured and killed in Mississippi—an incident that would expose the racism of the Jim Crow South to the world. The murder affected Rosa to her core. When asked later what she was thinking of when she sat refusing to give up her seat, she mentioned Emmett Till.
But like many leaders who are written about in our history books, Rosa isn’t portrayed in her complexities, but instead as a tired seamstress. Rosa’s reaction to this was:
I didn’t tell anyone my feet were hurting. It was just popular. I suppose they wanted to give some excuse other than the fact that I didn’t want to be pushed around. And I had been working for a long time. A number of years, in fact—to be treated as a human being, with dignity not only for myself, but for all those who were being mistreated.
Theoharis is correct to point out that the myth of Rosa having tired feet likely developed to soften Parks’ image—to make Rosa’s action seem less defiant. “It’s less about fighting an injustice when it’s just about your feet,” Theoharis notes.
Theoharris goes on to situate Rosa’s busing stance in the historical moment, describing the oppressive atmosphere of the Jim Crow South at the time, where everything was segregated—schools, restaurants, hospitals, theaters, pools and, of course, public transportation.
Riding a segregated bus was a daily experience of humiliation and embarrassment for Blacks. The ugliness of racism was on display each day for everyone to see—but only for Blacks to experience. Martin Luther King once rode on a bus for over two hours having to stand over an empty seat in the white section—he would identify this as “one of the angriest moments of my life.”
Rosa, like the other Black women who rode the buses, couldn’t afford her own car. She lived in public housing, never went to college, and finished her high school education as an adult. She worked as a seamstress, and rode the bus each day along with many other Black women – many of whom went to work for white people in their homes as domestic workers.
All the bus drivers were white, while most of the passengers were Black—although this, of course, depended on the neighborhood. Blacks had to pay at the front of the bus, but board at the back, so as not to walk past any white people. Many times, a Black passenger would pay, but the bus would take off before they had a chance to re-board, leaving them to wait for the next bus—or walk.
Many of the bus drivers were arrogant, outwardly racist and free with the use of racial slurs. Change was often thrown on the floor of the bus instead of put into a Black persons hands. Some Black passengers were physically accosted, pushed, and slapped—all in plain view of all the other passengers. The drivers had police powers and could have people arrested. In one instance, a Black war veteran, Hilliard Brooks, paid his fare at the front, but refused to board at the back. He was told to exit the bus, but refused to, until he got his money back. The police were called, and he was pulled off the bus and shot in the back, killing him. This was in 1950.
Rosa was not the first person to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat. In fact, two other people were arrested that same year. The difference was the boycott launched in response to her arrest. No one involved had any knowledge beforehand that it would be successful. None of the activists who helped launch the action—including women like Jo Ann Robinson from the Women’s Political Council, or community and union activist E.D. Nixon, or a young preacher named Martin Luther King Jr.—had any experience organizing something of this magnitude.
To read about the Montgomery Bus Boycott and how it was organized is inspiring. It shows that ordinary people, when organized, can take on the courts, vigilantes, bus companies and more—and win. This might have seemed a small victory—Blacks having the right to sit anywhere they wanted to on the bus—but it was not small at all in the context of the Jim Crow South. This was proof that racism could be challenged, and that the courts could be forced to change unjust laws. Finally, the boycott showed that, through grassroots struggle, not only are material conditions changed, but the people who create the change are changed themselves.
People who were beaten down by racism, made to feel lowly, and thought of as people who would not challenge segregation had started to do exactly that. During the boycott, the Black community of Montgomery learned what they were capable of, and they walked down the street with a new sense of pride.
But none of it was easy. Many obstacles lay ahead of them, whether it was physical threats—Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, as well as many other prominent activists, received constant phone threats—vigilantes throwing bombs, crosses burned on people’s lawns, or legal obstacles. At one point, the boycotters were told they would not be able to purchase car insurance for a fleet of station wagons that had been donated to them. So activists got car insurance from a company in London, instead.
During the course of the boycott, biweekly meetings were held in churches, where thousands of people would attend. These meetings were mini rallies, which also served as a place to get updated information on the state of the boycott. Committees were well organized, especially the one coordinating transportation for people who couldn’t use the buses. For over a year, the boycotters worked out how to get people to and from work, shopping, or wherever they needed to go. Activists were able to withstand all of the pressures put on them, and finally, after more than a year, the US Supreme Court ruled in their favor, desegregating the buses.
It was an enormous victory, and one that catapulted Martin Luther King to prominence as the main spokesperson of the movement.
For Rosa Parks, it was a little bit different. As a result of her arrest, she lost her job. Her husband also lost his job because he refused an order not to talk about the boycott at work. Taking care of her sick mother at home with no income made life very difficult for her and her family. Theoharis writes about how Rosa would go on speaking tours to help raise funds for the boycott, but never took money for herself. Theoharis also points out how the movement didn’t step in to help Rosa when it could have. The MIA (Montgomery Improvement Association) had hired woman to work in the office, and it could easily have hired Rosa.
Instead, she and her family moved to Detroit eight months after the boycott began, where she remained for the rest of her life. She remained politically active, getting a job working for US congressman John Conyers. When the Black Power movement emerged, she identified with the youth who, as she said, “were sick of being abused, were sick of taking it.” While she understood the tactic of passive resistance and felt it worked in the early years of the civil rights movement, she didn’t consider herself a pacifist. “I don’t understand, if I’m provoked I’m going to fight back,” she said. She heard Malcolm X speak and got to meet him, and he became a hero of hers.
Rosa was frustrated with the incessant questions she would get about every aspect of that one day in December when she refused to give up her seat. She felt like journalists were not hearing the larger story of the boycott and what it takes to fight racism. She never wanted to dwell on this one moment—the moment of her refusal to get up. But nonetheless, it is important to understand it. Rosa talked about how lonely it felt to stay in her seat—she knew others on the bus, but no one rose to her defense. Theoharis writes that Rosa “fantasized about what it would have been like if the whole bus had emptied” when she was taken off and arrested.
In the years subsequent to her arrest, and particularly in the past few decades, Parks’ decision to remain sitting has been repeatedly called a “small act”; even Parks, on occasion, minimized it. But there was nothing small about her action. Renowned Black feminist Pauli Murray in 1956, observed: “Here was an individual virtually alone, challenging the very citadel of racial bigotry, the brutality of which has horrified the world over the past few years. Anyone of us who has ever been arrested on a Southern bus for refusing to move back knows how terrifying this experience can be, particularly if it happened before the days of organized protest the fear of a lifetime always close to the surface of consciousness in those of us who have lived under the yoke of Southern racism is intensified by the sudden commotion and the charged atmosphere in the cramped space of the bus interior. As one who has known this fear, I suspect Mrs. Parks also felt it, but summoning all of her strength, she disregarded it and held her position.”
Rosa Parks died in 2005 at the age of 92. Rosa spent her entire life fighting for a society without racism. She worked to make that a reality. And now she has passed the torch on to us. Read Theoharis’ engaging book to get a good sense of where that torch has been, since it comes with a whole lot of history that will be useful to us as we carry it forward in today’s struggles.