Rosa Parks is the saint of direct action. Her refusal to bow down to segregation and give up her bus seat on December 1, 1955, marked a turning point in U.S. protest politics. From that point on, liberation movements began to define themselves by sit-ins, wade-ins and even bed-ins. The quiet refusal of Mrs. Parks transformed individual acts of resistance into a social movement.
Parks’ action came at a moment when revolution was the main theme of the world. The colonies of Africa were fighting for independence, while black GIs returning home from
World War II demanded victory against fascism and Jim Crow. The mood brought more
people into politics and public life in America and provided a challenge to racism.
This is a point lost on many of the memorials written on Parks’ passing at the age of 92. For the mainstream media, Parks is simply “the bus lady” who refused to give up her seat because she was tired from a long day’s work. This version of history robs the complexity of Parks’ life and the civil rights movement as a whole.
Parks was a respected community member and seasoned activist, whose life intersected with the viable mass movements of the day. She was trained at the Highlander Folk School alongside civil rights activist-teacher Septima Clark. As secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, she worked with E.D. Nixon, a member of the Pullman Car Workers Union. In fact, on the day of her arrest, she was rushing home to prepare for a NAACP youth workshop.
While in the myth-making, Parks’ arrest is seen as the launching point for Dr. Martin Luther King’s career as a civil rights leader, little is discussed in terms of the significance of the Montgomery bus boycott. The original boycott was to last one day, but after Parks’ conviction, it was decided by the community to extend it until the buses in Montgomery were desegregated.This required the black community to create new forms of transportation, including bus and car pools, or simply to walk. The churches became the focal point of community organizing and maintaining spiritual sustenance in the face of racist violence.
In creating these organic links, the fighting capacity of the black community was strengthened. These bonds began to reflect themselves throughout the civil rights movement, as freedom schools, soup kitchens, and independent political parties all became the backbone of the Freedom movement. The direct action of Parks led to ordinary people viewing direct action not as spectators, but as active participants on a number of levels.
Parks’ legacy reflected patience for people’s ability to learn and a respect for a diversity of
tactics. Little known is Parks’ support for Robert F. Williams, the president of the Monroe Chapter of the NAACP, who promised to meet “racist violence with violence.” Williams organized self-defense patrols of the black community and was forced into exile in Cuba and China. Parks delivered the eulogy at Williams’ funeral in 1996, saying that, “the work he did should go down in history and never be forgotten.”
On Nov. 2 Parks was remembered in her adopted hometown of Detroit when every first seat of every city bus was vacated in her honor. On Oct.27, city councilman Charles Barron and the Troops Out Now Coalition gathered in front of City Hall to call for a December 1 “Day of Absence” in honor of the 50th anniversary of Parks’ action in Montgomery.