The Real Rosa Parks: A Lifetime of Activism
December 1, 2015, commemorated the 60th anniversary of the day Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Yesterday, she would have been 105 years old.
Even in the abbreviated and over-simplified version of the Civil Rights Movement taught in most schools, all of us learn about Parks’ heroic stand against racism. What most school children and adults do not know is that Parks’ actions on the bus that day were part of a long history of activism.
Jeanne Theoharis, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College, wrote a biography called, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” which reveals a portrait distinct from the “quiet” woman history remembers. In an interview on C-Span about the book, Theoharis presents some little-known facts about the historic activism of Rosa Parks.
After World War II, violence toward African-Americans flared as white supremacists fomented and reacted to fears of a racial uprising. Six-year-old Rosa Parks would sit with her grandfather on the front porch as he held his shotgun in case white marauders came to attack his family. She married Raymond Parks, already an activist in his own right, and joins him in defending the Scottsboro Nine—a group of black males falsely accused of rape. In 1943, Parks became the secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP. She would continue organizing efforts for civil rights over the next decade. Earlier in 1955, she received training on school desegregation at the famed Highlander Folk School—an integrated civil rights training institution in Tennessee.
Parks had a particular concern for black women who had been victims of sexual violence. In an article in the Washington Post, Jeanne Theoharis describes Parks’ advocacy for a woman that led to a historic legal decision.
“When Joan Little, a 20-year-old black woman serving a seven-year sentence for robbery, killed a white guard who sexually assaulted her, Parks co-founded Detroit’s Joan Little Defense Committee. Little was acquitted, becoming the first woman in U.S. history to successfully use self-defense against sexual assault in a homicide case.”
Rosa Parks’ decision to defy the white bus driver when he told her to move was the culmination of a lifetime of activism. Parks had been pushed as far as she could tolerate. Still seething from the murder of 14-year old Emmet Till in late August and remembering the legacy of resistance in her family, she says to the bus driver threatening to arrest her, “Well, you may do that.”
The supposedly placid Parks continued to work for justice throughout her life. After she lost her job as a result of her protests, she moved north to Detroit. Her later efforts included protests against apartheid in South Africa and objections to the war in Vietnam.
The life and labor of Rosa Parks teach Christians that activism is a habit. It is naïve to believe that people find new courage and purpose during a single moment of decision. In order to stand (or sit) for justice, righteousness must already be routine.
As we remember the lone woman who helped spark the most public movement for U.S. civil rights in the 20th century, we should also recall that Rosa Parks had a lifetime of activism to prepare her for the moment of opportunity.
For further information about the woman behind the legend, investigate these resources: