January 19, 2001
by Barbara Ransby
On Dec. 1, 1955, the courageous actions of one middle-aged black woman in Montgomery, Ala., marked a turning point for the civil-rights movement in the United States. On that day, Rosa Parks defiantly refused to comply with the city's racist policy of segregated seating on public buses. As a result she was thrown in jail, a move that sparked a year-long protest and had a ripple effect throughout the country.
The acts of Rosa Parks on that fateful day have become a staple of black history presentations and a part of the legend of the civil-rights struggle. Her defiance helped lead a radical transformation of racial policies and practices in the South, the death of Jim Crow segregation and, ultimately, the inclusion of disenfranchised blacks in electoral politics. But over time, some of the facts about Rosa Park have gotten lost in the translation.
First, many accounts of the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott cast Rosa Parks as someone who almost inadvertently stumbled into the history books. The popular story describes her as a tired seamstress who one day simply refused to move when asked to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus, as was the custom.
But her actions were neither simple nor spontaneous. Parks was a politically savvy woman who had held office with the local NAACP branch and was an active member of the organization. Montgomery organizers had been looking for ways to challenge the segregation policies on the city buses for some time. Black women had been in the forefront of these efforts, since domestic workers used the buses daily. Parks had participated in discussions about how to launch such a campaign, including the idea of a boycott. She may not have known how things would turn out as a result of her actions 45 years ago but she definitely understood the potential. It was a conscious political act, not an accident.
A second myth about the boycott is the idea that Parks was a lone heroine. That's how we Americans seem to like our heroes and heroines tough, solitary individuals. However, historical reality paints a different picture. Parks did not act alone.
One group which was pivotal in launching the boycott was the Women's Political Council of Montgomery, led by Jo Ann Robinson, a teacher at a local black college. Robinson drafted and made copies of the leaflet calling for a bus boycott on the night of Parks arrest. She approached the black male leadership in the city for its support and approval. Robinson then worked with activist E.D. Nixon and others to build enthusiasm for the boycott in the community.
Another myth about the Montgomery bus boycott is that its success was solely a result of the leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. While King became the principal spokesperson for the boycott and ultimately for the larger movement, he, too, did not act alone. As veteran activists Ella Baker once commented, "Martin didn't make the movement, the movement made Martin."
The success of the campaign in Montgomery rested on the hard work, courage and determination of hundreds of ordinary people who rose above the mundane routines of their lives to become actors in a profound historical drama. There were maids, porters, teachers, students and cooks. Many of them walked hundreds of miles over the course of the year to avoid breaking the boycott and riding on the targeted buses. Others were beaten, arrested and fired from their jobs for their participation. Still, without great fanfare, they persevered.
The struggle for racial justice and democracy in Alabama in the 1950s was the first highly visible grassroots protest against racism and segregation in postwar America. It was not, however, the first or the last. As the book "Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change" (Free Press, 1984) by Aldon Morris illustrates, there were other anti-segregation boycotts that preceded Montgomery and many that followed.
Despite threats and harassment, Rosa Parks survived the boycott and has lived to the ripe old age of 87. Her pace has slackened a bit, but she still gives an occasional speech about freedom and human rights. Her message is fairly consistentdespite all that has been won, there is still a long way to go to combat racism, poverty and inequality.
We have to honor those who went before, not simply by singing their praises and not by distorting their roles but by carrying on in their activist tradition. This is a tradition of heroes as well as unsung Americans who together can change history.
Barbara Ransby is an assistant professor of African American studies and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is working on a biography of civil-rights activist Ella Baker, which will be published in 2001 by the University of North Carolina Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.