If history is messy and you nonviolently change and revolutionize society with the movement you have, then things look ever so bleak in the United States. One reason for this lack of participatory history and absent minded imagination can be observed in how Rosa Parks and Black History month is currently memorialized and celebrated. There is much more to Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her segregated seat to a white man when a bus driver ordered her too do so in December 1955. But in a consumer oriented and profit-driven society, in an era that egregiously reflects the Me Generation, and in a time in which the “individual sphere” has replaced the “public sphere” with bouts of flash mob frenzy and passive bouts of digital entertainment, the genuine and historical Rosa Parks and Black History Month is missing, as is the goal to transform and remake society.
During her childhood, Rosa Park’s mother, an elementary school teacher, and her grandparents, former slaves, had always taught her not to regard herself as inferior to whites.(1) Her grandfather, Sylvester Edwards, reinforced this oppositional consciousness by referring to the beatings which had left him with a permanent limp. He also allowed Rosa Parks to sit in his lap in a wooden rocking chair, gun in hand as a vigilant sentinel, to defend his home and family from the Ku Klux Klan that came riding through Pine Level, Alabama so as to terrorize blacks. Although Klan figures often took on mythical proportions for Rosa Parks, even causing nightmares, her grandfather provided comfort and security and showed courage. Once, her grandfather stool on his front porch, shotgun at the ready, as the Klan marched through the neighborhood.(2)
Rosa Parks’ grandfather also instilled a sense of risk-taking and sacrifice, of pride and self-respect. In the middle of the night her grandfather would pat her on the head and assure her he would protect them, or die trying. She vowed to help fight the intruders when the time came.(3) Gradually, fear gave way to righteous anger against the men who terrorized her. She also learned communal responsibility and developed a sense of justice, promising to defend her people from the cowards who murdered and went unpunished.(3) By the time Rosa Parks moved to Montgomery, she had married Raymond Parks, an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She joined the organization and raised money to fund the defense of the “Scottsboro Boys,” a group of African-American men falsely accused of raping two white women on a train.(4)
In Montgomery, Rosa Parks gained a reputation as an upstanding hard worker, a seamstress for the Montgomery Fair Department store, and a devoted advocate for civil rights. The Montgomery branch of the NAACP elected her as secretary, the same branch that Martin Luther King served on as executive committee. (In fact, his letter of appointment came from Rosa Parks.) She helped the chapter president, E.D. Nixon, make written records of cases of racial discrimination and became an adviser to the NAACP’s Youth Council. It was during this time, at age 21 and while recruiting young people to become recipients of the United Negro College Fund scholarships, that she herself received her high school diploma, since she had dropped out of high school to care for her ailing mother and grandmother.(5)
The same day Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and said, “Go ahead!”, when a bus driver threatened to call the police,(6) she had worked a long day hunched over a table making alterations. As she headed home, her feet hurt, and her back strained from the weight of several packages she carried. Exhausted, she was relieved to discover that the front of the bus-the section reserved for white people only-was empty. This meant Rosa Parks could proceed directly to a seat in the “colored” section at the rear of the bus. Had the white section been occupied with even one passenger, she would have been required to pay her fare at the front of the bus, exit, and then reenter through the door at the back. (Out of cruelty, some bus drivers would drive off before the passenger who had paid could reach the back door, something that had previously happened to Rosa Parks.)(7)
Rosa Parks sank wearily into her seat in the section marked “For Colored People.” She stared out the window, thinking about a meeting she had attended earlier that week addressing the horrific murder in Mississippi of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old African-American boy who was lynched and beaten for allegedly whistling at a white woman. (Emmett Till’s killers, two white men, boasted of murdering him but were exonerated by an all-white jury.)(8) She knew that civil rights organizations were poised to test whether the Supreme Court’s May 17, 1954, ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which declared that separate schools for blacks were unconstitutional, could be assumed to cover other public services.(9) Already, Claudette Colvin’s (a fifteen-year-old seated stand for justice was being tested in the courts in Browder vs. Gayle.(10)
All of the seats were soon taken when several white men boarded at a bus stop in front of the Empire Theatre. Since there were no seats left to accommodate these new passengers, the bus driver waved his arm demanding, “Y’all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.” Three of the black passengers relinquished their seats to the white passengers while Rosa Parks remained seated. She recognized the driver, James Blake, who had once left her stranded in the rain when she had to de-board and then walk around to the back of the bus to board again. She was tired of being pushed around because of the color of her skin and fed up by a lifetime of injustice and oppression. She would later admit that she “felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.”(11)
Again, the NAACP had long wanted to take a test case to court to challenge the legality of segregation in public facilities. Rosa Park’s moral character, her determination, work ethic and commitment to social change made her the perfect catalyst. Still, she consulted with her husband, knowing retribution and attacks would ensue. “If you think it will mean something to Montgomery and do some good,” said Rosa Parks, “I’ll be happy to go along with it.”(12) Found guilty of violating the Montgomery City segregation code and fined $10, plus $4 court costs, she appealed the verdict. As NAACP lawyers prepared their test case, the Women’s Political council, a group consisting of community members and congregants of local churches, joined together to organize a boycott of the Montgomery Bus Company.
Two ministers, Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, organized the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). The MIA circulated thirty-five thousand copies of a petition urging blacks to boycott city buses. When Rosa Parks emerged from the courthouse, the steps were filled with over 500 supporters, the first public evidence of the impact her arrest made on Montgomery’s black community. A meting that same night, at the Holt Street Baptist Church, included 1,000 seated people and a crowd that surrounded the church for several blocks.(13) For 381 days, 40,000 black commuters shunned public transportation. These dedicated citizens made enormous personal sacrifices by facing false arrests and imprisonments, an by walking miles to work and school despite blisters, inclement weather, exhaustion, threats of violence, and bombings of black churches.(14)
“History,” wrote James Baldwin, “does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”(15) Although definitely warranted and long over due, Rosa Parks’ honorary postage stamp, which shows only her, overlooks a much broader historical Rosa Parks and event, one that is inter-family, inter-responsible, inter-empathetic, inter-connected, inter-organized, and inter-conscientious. Rosa Parks occupied her seat because of the self-respect and courage she inherited from her grandfather. She took a seated stand by feeling answerable to a larger community, by feeling empathy with victims like Emmett Till, and by feeling righteously angered towards cowards who terrorized others.
Spur-of-the-moment actions are never isolated. If not for the inter-connectedness of dozens of civil rights groups and the sacrifices of tens of thousands of people, Rosa Parks would not be known as the “Mother of the Modern Civil Rights Movement.” Instead, she would be just another footnote in history like Claudette Colvin. Rosa Parks spent the remainder of her inter-conscientious life working as a civil rights activist, encouraging African American voter registration and fighting oppression worldwide.(16) In 1985, she joined the Free South Africa Movement, walking the picket lines in Washington D.C. in order to pressure the Reagan Administration too withdraw its support of South Africa’s violent and deadly apartheid government. She also lobbied U.S. corporations, demanding they de-fund and boycott oppressive institutions and businesses in South Africa.
As for Black History Month, it is really a transcendent history starting in Africa. The Nile and Niger Rivers were centers of great societies and civilizations that, over many millenniums, helped people and culture the globe. But consumer oriented and profit-driven societies, along with egregiously selfish individuals, destroyed and enslaved much of Africa. The historical U.S. became exceedingly wealthy and powerful, building an empire of liberal capitalism and militarism on the backs of African slaves. A society might forget history, but history never forgets a society. Both constructive and critical aspects of Black History Month should be commemorated and engaged each and every day of the year, as should Brown, White, Red, and Yellow Histories. Profitability, simplicity, nostalgia, and extreme selectiveness should always be avoided.
Consciously or subconsciously, the more one gives in, the more one forgoes the opportunities of occupation and organization and collectivized protests, the more one looses their historical inter-connectedness and identity and purpose, and the more one complies with injuries and injustices, the more oppressive a society, and even a history, becomes. To their dismay, societies and civilizations, including their peoples, become harder to change and transform.
(1) Dicanio, Margaret B. Encyclopedia of American Activism, 1960 To The Present. Lincoln, Nebraska: iUniverse,Inc., 1998., p. 355.
(2) Kiester, Edwin. Before They Changed The World. Beverly, Massachusetts: Fair Winds Press, 2009., p. 240.
(3) Ibid., p. 240.
(4) Ibid., p. 243.
(5) Dicanio, Margaret B. Encyclopedia of American Activism, 1960 To The Present., p. 356.
(6) Ibid., p. 355.
(7) Ibid., p. 356.
(8) Kiester, Edwin. Before They Changed The World., p. 244.
(9) Dicanio, Margaret B. Encyclopedia of American Activism, 1960 To The Present., p. 356.
(10) Bayne, Bijan C., “Michelle Obama Is Not Our First Black First Lady? 10 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About Black History.”https://www.alternet.org.
(11) Kiester, Edwin. Before They Changed The World., p. 245.
(12) Ibid., p. 246.
(13) Dicanio, Margaret B. Encyclopedia of American Activism, 1960 To The Present., pp. 356-357.
(14) Kiester, Edwin. Before They Changed The World., p. 246.
(15) Foner, Eric. Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World. New York, New York: Hill and Wang Publishers, 2002., p. ix.
(16) Kiester, Edwin. Before They Changed The World., p. 247.