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Aaron Regunberg: The Real Story of Rosa Parks

Friday, November 30, 2012


This Saturday is the 57th anniversary of the day that Rosa Parks refused to obey an order to give up her bus seat to a white passenger and, in so doing, became a defining icon of the Civil Rights Movement.

We’ve all heard this familiar tale. It’s the story that’s in school history texts and children’s books, and it usually goes something like this: “Rosa Parks was a poor old seamstress who lived in Montgomery, Alabama back when there was still segregation. One day on her way home from work she sat at the front of the bus. A white man told her to move to the back of the bus, but she was tired from work and so she refused. The driver called the police and had her arrested, and when other African Americans in Montgomery heard the news, they became angry and decided to boycott the buses until everyone could ride them together. Rosa Parks was a very courageous person.”

Unfortunately, this story—the one we teach our kids, the one we repeat to one other when we speak about social justice and activism—is so stripped of its context that it bears little resemblance to the actual historical events that occurred all those years ago. This is a shame, because the real story is quite a bit more inspiring, and powerful.

In the real story, Rosa Parks was far from a “poor old seamstress.” In fact, Parks was a vibrant, strong woman who had long been an important community leader in the fight for racial justice. Parks had been one of the first women in Montgomery to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and had been its secretary for many years, working under chapter president E.D. Nixon, a major union leader from whom she learned about the labor movement. Rosa Parks was well known to local African American leaders for her moral strength and her work fighting to desegregate Montgomery schools, and was well versed in former challenges to segregation, such as a bus boycott in Baton Rouge two years earlier that had won limited gains, and the three black residents of Montgomery who had been arrested previously for refusing to move to the back of the bus (Rosa Parks was far from the first African American to do this).

In addition, Rosa Parks did not refuse to give up her seat because she was “tired from work.” Parks, who worked a full-time job and was also active full time in the community, was not any more tired on that one day than she was most days. In her autobiography, Parks wrote, “People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” To emphasize her being tired, as we do in our normal telling of the story, is to say that her act of resistance was the accidental result of her weariness and irritability. Crabbiness, however, is not what led to her defiance—on the contrary, Parks knew exactly what she was doing.

The mythologized version of the story also has Parks acting in isolation. As we tell it, Parks’ act of defiance spontaneously led to community-wide solidarity around an instantly effective bus boycott the day after Parks was arrested. Of course, social change doesn’t happen that way, and it’s an affront to the intelligence, determination, and skill of the civil rights community in Montgomery to turn their organized and planned resistance into an unprompted emotional response. In reality, African American leaders had long considered a boycott as a tactic to achieve racial justice. They had been laying the organizing groundwork for years, and had simply been waiting for the right person—someone like Parks, who was a trusted community leader—to serve as the spark.

That’s why organizers were able to mobilize the boycott so quickly. The evening of Parks’ arrest, E.D. Nixon and his colleagues agreed that this was the opportunity they had been waiting for, and decided to try to take the case to the Supreme Court. That night Jo Ann Robinson, president of the highly active, 300-member Women’s Political Club, stayed up till dawn with a mimeograph machine, making tens of thousands of posters that were distributed over the weekend to churches, schools, stores, and homes. And the next morning, Nixon phoned up Montgomery’s black ministers, including the young Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and told them it was time to mobilize the city’s many African American congregations.

And that, of course, was just the beginning. We tend to think of the boycott as being instantaneously effective, but in reality it went on for 381 inconvenient days. That is over a year in which thousands of African Americans chose to walk—often many miles—to and from work every day. For all that time, organizers held two mass rallies every week to raise spirits and money, and arranged countless carpools to provide thousands of rides each day.

In the end, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was successful, and it played an incredibly important role in inspiring subsequent acts of organized defiance and courage in the Civil Rights Movement. And that is a truly powerful story.

But the lessons that we learn from the real Rosa Parks history are very different from those that we learn from the Rosa Parks myth, and I would argue that this is not an accident. It’s much safer, from the perspective of the status quo, to teach our kids that change comes from isolated individual action, from heroes like Rosa Parks who come along every once in a while and end desegregation in a day. Because when people think that, they never get around to the kind of deliberate, collective action that actually led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and that is always necessary to create real change. Jim Crow was overcome because ordinary people banded together at significant personal sacrifice to fight back against oppression. It did not happen spontaneously, and it did not happen by chance; it was arrived at only through hard work and perseverance and commitment to the common struggle.

If we can learn this, we can continue Rosa Parks’ struggle for justice and equality. Tomorrow, the anniversary of this important event, seems like a great opportunity to recommit to this critical lesson.


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