Historians often attribute the beginning of the civil rights movement to December 1, 1955 when a woman stirred things up. Somehow the history only partially translated to my grade-school learning. What I learned in school was that Rosa Parks was a woman who had been working hard at her job and that day she was tired and didn’t want to get up and move to the back of the bus so a white person could sit down. Well that made sense. It wasn’t fair that she would have to move for some white guy. Rosa Parks’s action wasn’t just stubbornness. What I didn’t get at the time was the context.
First of all, as a kid, I saw Rosa Parks as an older black woman. When I look at pictures of her now, I realize she wasn’t that old (she was 42 at the time of the civil disobedience) and she was beautiful. That’s beside the point kind of, but it was in my head that she was this grandma age woman who was tired. This might have been partly due to how we often see adults as old when we are kids, but I also wonder how she was portrayed to me at the time in school and how the fight for civil rights was portrayed.
The context of Rosa Parks’ action was this: she was a radical activist woman who had been working on civil rights issues in a larger movement for black people all over the nation.
Rosa Parks tipped the scale with her action because the movement had been growing and because civil rights used her action as part of the larger plan, but she hadn’t been the first to stand up for her self and her rights in the arena of public transportation. Among some of the women who had also stood up for the rights of African Americans were:
Elizabeth Jennings Graham (1830–1901) was a black woman who lived in New York City who in 1854 insisted on her right to ride on a horse-drawn streetcar. At the time, these street cars were becoming popular modes of transportation and were owned by private companies whose owners and drivers could refuse to serve any passengers they wished to. Many refused to allow black passengers. Elizabeth Jennings Graham put up quite a fight, but was eventually removed by police.
Irene Morgan (April 9, 1917 – August 10, 2007) was 27 years old when she was arrested and thrown into jail in 1944 when she refused to give up her seat on an interstate Greyhound bus to a white person. In a 1946 landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that Virginia’s state law enforcing segregation on interstate buses was illegal.
Sarah Keys was a Women’s Army Corps (WAC) private when she filed a bus segregation complaint in 1953 about the Carolina Coach Company. Her case Keys v. Carolina Coach Company, and the train desegregation case, NAACP v. St. Louis-San Francisco Railway Company in 1955, were both huge wins in the legal battle for civil rights. In November 1955, six days before Rosa Parks refused to move to a different seat, the court ruled against the Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of separate but equal/segregation on interstate buses that crossed state lines.
Nine months before Rosa Parks gave up her seat, Claudette Colvin resisted bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama. Her act of resistance wasn’t publicized because she was a teenager and became pregnant and wasn’t married. Due to the social norms of the time period, civil rights leaders worried about using her to represent their movement.
There were a lot of people and a lot of women who fought for civil rights before Rosa Parks. It is a fascinating history and Rosa was a big part of it. When we can see Rosa Parks’ action in the context of the civil rights movement, we see she was not alone and we see how huge her action was.
It was an organized action, not just some poor tired woman on a bus being defiant. It was a strong woman standing up for justice, for equality, for her rights and for the rights of African American people in the entire nation. Rosa was tired of racism as were the other activists who came before her and the many people having to live under Jim Crow laws.
Grrl Code: It’s Black History/Herstory Month– The accomplishments of African American people in the face of extreme discrimination have been phenomenal! We must all strive for a world that celebrates all people and allows equal opportunities for everyone, institutionally and otherwise. Work to stop racism and sexism, they are both pillars of the system that is destroying us all.