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"A life history of being rebellious”

By Brian Jones | November 4, 2005 | Page 9

AFTER MARTIN Luther King, Jr., the most widely recognized figure of the civil rights movement is Rosa Parks.

Her famous act of defiance--refusing to give up her seat on an Alabama bus in 1955--and her subsequent arrest were the sparks that initiated the famous Montgomery bus boycott, the opening shot of activism in the war that smashed legal segregation.

Many have heard that Rosa Parks' decision was simply the quiet rebellion of an old lady who was tired from working all day as a seamstress. Parks was a seamstress, but she was also a lifelong activist and organizer, not a "tired old lady" (she was only 42 at the time of her arrest!).

Responding to the myth of her alleged tiredness, Parks said, "the only tired I was, was tired of giving in." She married her husband, Raymond Parks, in part because he was the first activist she had ever met.

In 1943, she became the second woman to join the Montgomery branch of the NAACP. As its unpaid secretary, she kept records on cases of discrimination and violence against Blacks.

Parks received activist training from veteran activist Ella Baker, who stayed in Parks' home during her trips to Montgomery, and spent a week at the Highlander Folk School, where she attended school desegregation workshops. Parks was also a member of the Montgomery Women's Political Caucus, the organization whose initiative would later help set the Montgomery Bus Boycott in motion.

Like most activists, Parks suffered years of frustration, failure and defeat before tasting victory. She worked with the NAACP's Youth Council, encouraging young people to use the main public library, instead of just the ones set aside for Blacks.

These efforts came to nothing. Likewise, her work recording discrimination in Montgomery was fraught with frustration--there was little that could be done for those who actually dared to come forward.

At the Highlander conference, three months before Parks would make history on the Cleveland Avenue bus, a participant remembered that Parks was pessimistic about the possibilities for change in Montgomery, assuring people in a workshop that "nothing would happen there." From her experience, it would have been hard to draw any other conclusion.

Parks had refused to comply with the segregation laws on the buses long before 1955, to no avail. She had done this so many times, in fact, that bus drivers in Montgomery often recognized her on the sidewalk and refused to stop for her!

Defying segregation on the buses was courageous--and dangerous. In the year before the Montgomery bus boycott, historian Jack Bloom recalls, "five Black women and two Black children had been arrested for disobeying the segregation laws on the buses. One Black man was shot; others were threatened with pistols by bus drivers; a blind man had his leg caught in the door and was dragged down the street."

The idea of a boycott had been contemplated before. A 15-year-old girl was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person on a bus, and King participated in a committee that met with the police, but no changes were granted. King and other civil rights activists were convinced that the movement needed a more respectable symbol after they learned that the 15-year-old girl was pregnant.

In November 1955, the Interstate Commerce Commission outlawed segregation in interstate travel. Six days after the announcement,, on Thursday, December 1, Rosa Parks was arrested. Finally having an "upstanding" case to organize around, Montgomery activists sprung into action. By Monday, a boycott of the buses was in full swing.

The initial demand was tame--an end to mistreatment by bus drivers. But with the buses running empty week after week, the movement gained the confidence to raise a larger demand--an end to segregation.

For more than a year, Montgomery's Black population carpooled, taxied and walked themselves to work. Three hundred and eighty-one days and countless fines and court injunctions later, they were victorious.

Martin Luther King recognized this as a double victory--for in fighting to change the laws, Blacks had changed themselves. "Our nonviolent protest in Montgomery is important because it is demonstrating to the Negro, North and South, that many of the stereotypes he has held about himself and other Negroes are not valid. Montgomery has broken the spell."

Success in Montgomery thrust King and Parks into the national spotlight. Parks spoke at countless civil rights rallies and meetings across the country. She became an inspiration to people everywhere who wanted to "break the spell" and stand up to segregation and racist violence.

She was a symbol of the movement, but her role was confined by conservative ideas about female leadership. Parks was invited, for example, to participate in the famous 1963 March on Washington, but was not asked to speak. "Nowadays women wouldn't stand for being kept so much in the background," she later wrote, "but back then women's rights hadn't become a popular cause yet."

Death threats eventually drove her from Montgomery to Detroit. Like many leading figures from the civil rights movement, Parks became absorbed into the Democratic Party (she began working for Michigan Congressman John Conyers in 1965).

Unlike others, she never cashed in on her prestige. At the time of her death, she was able to maintain herself only because her landlord stopped charging her rent.

Parks received countless honorary degrees and awards, including the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor. To her credit, though, Parks remained committed to antiracist politics. A few years ago, she was assaulted and robbed outside her home, but made a point of asking the public not to vilify Black youth in response.

Rosa Parks' death is doubly painful--not only because she was a leader of one of the most important social struggles of the 20th century, but also because the accomplishments of that movement have been all but destroyed. Public schools are as segregated, in some places more segregated than they were 40 years ago. Hurricane Katrina exposed the threadbare living conditions Southern Blacks endure 140 years after the abolition of slavery.

Today, a new antiracist movement is needed, one that goes further than the question of civil rights, and rips up the economic roots of racism. Like the civil rights movement, this new movement won't pop out of the sky. It will be built over years by people who commit their lives to the struggle for justice.

Rosa Parks had, in her own words, "a life history of being rebellious." That's the kind of life worth celebrating, and worth living.

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