By William Fisher
Ask any non-American to name three leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, and chances are they’ll stop after one: Martin Luther King.
But in fact the movement had many leaders.
Malcolm X went from being a street-wise Boston hoodlum to one of America’s most influential black nationalist leaders, advocating black pride, economic self-reliance, and identity politics. He was assassinated in New York City in 1965.
Stokely Carmichael saw nonviolence as a tactic as opposed to a principle, and was critical of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, who called for integration of African Americans into the existing institutions of white middle class culture.
Medgar Evers, the first field officer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Mississippi, was involved in a boycott against white merchants in the city of Jackson and was instrumental in eventually desegregating the University of Mississippi in 1962. Evers was assassinated by white supremacists in 1963.
John Lewis, now a member of the U.S. Congress from Georgia, led the first march across the now-famous bridge in Selma, Alabama, to confront police armed with riot gear, water cannons and dogs. A few days later, he was joined by Rev. King and their actions led to the passage of historic civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965.
There were many others who played key roles in the civil rights struggle. One of them was Rosa Parks, and despite the recent spate of well-publicized events surrounding her death last month at age 92, non-Americans are unlikely to place her in this pantheon of civil rights leaders. Indeed, millions of Americans are among those to whom Mrs. Parks was unknown.
The mythology is that Rosa Parks was just an ‘ordinary black seamstress’, quiet, soft-spoken and retiring, tired after a day’s work, when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a racially segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in December, 1955.
But the reality is that Mrs. Parks was an activist long before her arrest on the bus. She had refused to give up her bus seat several times before her well-photographed arrest, and had joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) when this simple act alone was potentially life-threatening in the racist atmosphere of America’s deep south in the 1950s.
Parks joined the NAACP at a time when membership could result in murder. She married Ray Parks, a longtime NAACP activist who carried a gun to challenge racial injustice in Alabama.
But December 1, 1955 was not the first time a black person had refused to obey the segregation laws of public transportation. Two black Montgomery women had been arrested earlier that year on the same charge, but Mrs. Parks was jailed. She also was fined $14.
According to Prof. William Jelani Cobb of the traditionally black Spelman College, “During one twelve-month period in the 1940s, the city of Birmingham witnessed some 88 cases of blacks who refused to obey the segregation laws on public transportation. Five months prior to Parks, fifteen year-old Claudette Colvin had refused to give up her seat for a white passenger. She had been ejected and arrested and the local NAACP considered bringing a suit that would challenge segregation on the city's buses, but Colvin was pregnant and unmarried… activists thought she would not be a sympathetic example. Another young black woman, Mary Louise Smith, was arrested shortly after Colvin; but (NAACP leaders) thought her dilapidated home and alcoholic father would be a public relations liability”
Prof. Cobb writes in America Online’s Black Voices, “A combination of factors made (Mrs. Parks’s) refusal a powder-keg moment in civil rights history. Just a year earlier, the Supreme Court had handed down the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the segregationist politicians had responded with the "Southern Manifesto," in which they declared their intent to resist integration at all costs. …And contrary to the popular retellings, her actions that day were not staged -- though they did come at the time when a coalition of activists and local lawyers were planning an assault on the structures of segregation in Montgomery. In the early hours, the local civil rights community found itself scrambling to respond to her arrest and imprisonment.
“Nor was the idea of boycotting segregated buses, which grew from Parks' arrest, unique. The 26 year-old Martin Luther King Jr., and the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), called upon the Rev.T.J. Jemison for advice. Jemison had organized a two-week boycott of the buses in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1953. Together they formulated a plan by which people would pay the MIA, (which) would then dispense funds for travel to the drivers in the carpools -- in order to avoid tickets for operating unlicensed taxi cabs.”
Her arrest triggered a 381-day boycott of the bus system organized by a then
little-known Baptist minister, Rev. Martin Luther King, who later earned the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. The boycott eventually led to a landmark Supreme Court decision outlawing racial segregation in all taxpayer-funded public services.
Mrs. Parks’s death last month at age 92 triggered an outpouring of admiration, love and ceremony. She became the first woman to lie in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, where her casket was viewed by thousands. Speeches by civil rights leaders, senators and congresspersons hailed her as “the mother of the civil rights movement”. Her memorial services in Washington, D.C. and in her adopted home state, Michigan, attracted tens of thousands of mourners, the singing of Aretha Franklin, and eulogies by former President Bill Clinton, both Michigan senators, the governor of the state, NAACP president Julian Bond, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and many others.
Clinton said, "Let us never forget that in that simple act and a lifetime of grace and dignity, she showed us every single day what it means to be free. She made us see and agree that everyone should be free. God Bless you Rosa Parks."
President Bush said Mrs. Parks' 1955 refusal to give up her seat "was an act of personal courage." Bush described her as "one of the most inspiring women of the 20th century" and said that she would always have a "special place" in American history. In 1996, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to civilians making outstanding contributions to American life. In 1999, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor.
Now a number of efforts are being made to carry on Rosa’s legacy and to link it to the anti-Iraq-war peace movement.
The Boston City Council unanimously adopted a resolution supporting Dec. 1 – the 50th anniversary of her arrest – as a nationwide “Day of Absence and Protest Against Poverty, Racism & War”. In New York, a dozen members of the City Council announced the introduction of a resolution declaring December 1 as Rosa Parks Day and called on businesses and schools to close or allow people to attend protest events.
Organizers of the national day have declared, “a relative handful of people who either own, control or profit from the economy must know that we consider the right to live free of war and the right to a job, to be as much of a civil right as the right to sit in the front of the bus. It is time to declare that poor and working people will not sit in the back of the economic bus that only runs to make the rich richer… (This) is the legacy that Rosa Parks has left us”.