Most Americans think of Rosa Parks as just a poor seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama who one day made a valiant stand and decided not to move to the back of the bus (as was required for African-Americans), single-handedly taking on and helping to change the racist policies of the Jim Crow Era. (Technically, Parks did not sit in the white section at all; she sat in the front row of the “colored” section and refused to give up her seat to a white when the bus got crowded.)
This story of individual initiative is one of the ways in which a more threatening narrative of a minority-led social movement is watered down to conform to the myth of the American Dream, in which any hard-working, courageous person has an equal chance to make a difference and/or to succeed in the American society and economy.
Rosa Parks was certainly a heroic figure, but her story is quite different than the myth that surrounds her legacy.
In actuality, while Parks was indeed a seamstress, she was also one of the first women in Montgomery to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and served as its secretary. She also worked with the the NAACP youth division and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, she had been working for the desegregation of Montgomery schools. In an oral history of the American Civil Rights Movement (My Soul Is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered by journalist Howell Raines), she explained: “I had almost a life history of being rebellious about being mistreated because of my color.”
Prior to Parks’ action on December 1, 1955, three other Montgomery blacks had been arrested for not giving up their bus seats, but Parks was deemed by the black leadership to have sufficient inner strength and respect of the community to serve as a rallying point for a boycott. In addition, the leadership thought she – humble yet dignified, would make a good impression on white judges. The planning for a boycott had been taking place since 1949. It required a significant investment of time and resources by the Civil Rights Movement. Word had to get out to the black community, leaflets printed and distributed, ministers asked to spread the word, negotiating demands drawn up, and most importantly, alternative transportation had to be put into place for all the blacks who relied on the bus to get to their jobs, doctor’s appointments, shopping, etc. Volunteer cars were needed, and volunteer drivers, for those who could not walk.
Martin Luther King, Jr., just 26 years old and relatively recently appointed as resident pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, was drafted as president of the protest committee, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). Several thousand attended the first mass meeting of the MIA on December 5th, 1955 and King delivered an appeal for support of the boycott that demonstrated his ability to move and inspire:
And we are not wrong; we are not wrong in what we are doing. (Well) If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. (Yes sir) [applause] If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. (Yes) [applause] If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. (That’s right) [applause] If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to Earth. (Yes) [applause] If we are wrong, justice is a lie (Yes), love has no meaning. [applause] And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water (Yes), [applause] and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Keep talking) [Applause]”
Between 30,000 and 40,000 fares were denied to the bus company every day. But even economic incentives were not enough to deter those blinded by racism; it took prolonged media exposure, political pressure, and most importantly, unwavering commitment on the part of the participants. The boycott lasted 381 days.
The role Rosa Parks played was significant, but it should not be examined out of context. The fact that it generally is provides a useful lesson in the political construction of social memories. The many protests that were the result of mass movements, involving a great deal of work, not to mention a large number of beatings and even fatalities, should not be reduced to a story about one brave self-effacing woman who knocked down almost a century of Jim Crow and realized “the American Dream.” We rightfully applaud and admire Rosa Parks, but her story is also a lesson in the political ends of carefully shaped narratives, couched as “histories,” thus conferring a certain authority or legitimacy upon what is actually a specific set of values, norms, and perspectives that in turn changes popular reactions to events.
As historian James Young famously observed, “Memory is never shaped in a vacuum; the motives of history are never pure.” We would do well to remember this even as we honor a great woman in history, Rosa Parks.