“Treading the tight-rope of Jim Crow from birth to death . . . [i]t takes a noble soul to plumb this line. There is always a line of some kind — color line hanging rope tightrope. To me it seems that we are puppets on the string in the white man’s hand. They say we must be segregated from them by the color line, yet they pull the strings and we perform to their satisfaction or suffer the consequence if we get out of line.”
Rosa Louise McCauley Parks was born 110 years ago today. Her courageous stand on a Montgomery bus in December 1955 is now American legend, yet her political voice and radicalism are still largely unrecognized. Even many who know she wasn’t a simple seamstress still miscast her as a face of respectability politics — distorting her political beliefs, the suffering she endured, and the radicalism of the civil rights movement.
Rosa Parks was a forty-two-year-old, working-class, seasoned organizer when the Montgomery bus boycott began. She had grown up in a family that supported pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey and started her adult political life alongside her activist husband, Raymond. She joined the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NCAAP) in 1943 and spent the next decade working on a series of anti-rape and anti–legal lynching cases.
Alongside Montgomery activist and Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters leader E. D. Nixon, Parks pushed the city’s NAACP to take more assertive, mass-based action against Jim Crow. Mentored by legendary organizer Ella Baker, she was inspired by the radical democratic visions of Septima Clark and Myles Horton when she attended the Highlander Folk School the summer before her arrest.
Rosa Parks moved to Detroit in 1957 and spent the second half of her life fighting the racial injustice of the North, seeing “not too much difference” between its segregation in schools and housing, job discrimination, and police brutality and that of the South. She embraced both nonviolent direct action and the moral right of self-defense, citing Malcolm X as her personal hero.
To the end of her life, Parks believed that the struggle was not over and much work laid ahead. Yet in the pantheon of Black radicals, she is often omitted, and her political ideas remain largely unrecognized.
Before the Boycott
Born in 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama, Rosa Parks’s militancy began at home. As a six year old, when racist violence exploded against Black soldiers returning from World War I, she stayed up with her grandfather as he guarded their house with his shotgun against attack from the Ku Klux Klan. As a preteen, when a white bully menaced her and her younger brother, Sylvester, she picked up a brick and threatened him. He backed down. When she told her grandmother about the incident, her grandmother reprimanded her, saying if she persisted with this kind of behavior she would be lynched before she was grown. Feeling betrayed, a young Rosa talked back: “I would rather be lynched than live to be mistreated, than not be allowed to say, ‘I don’t like it.’”
At the age of eighteen, a mutual friend introduced Rosa to a politically active barber, Raymond Parks. She described him as “the first real activist I ever met.” Raymond was organizing on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys, nine young men aged twelve to nineteen who had been wrongfully accused of rape and, all but the youngest, were ultimately sentenced to death. (The campaign was largely spearheaded by communists and other leftists, because the NAACP shied away from cases that involved or alleged sexual violence.) Meeting Raymond opened a new world of collective struggle. When they married, Rosa joined him in this dangerous enterprise; she recalled late-night gatherings, guns on the table, because it was risky even to hold a meeting.
In 1943, galled by the fact that Black people were fighting overseas and unable to vote at home, Rosa Parks joined the Montgomery NAACP. Along with E. D. Nixon and activist Johnnie Carr, she helped transform it into a more activist branch. They worked on mass voter registration campaigns, fought injustices in the criminal legal system, and organized for school and bus desegregation. Seeking justice for lynching, rape, and assault victims — including twenty-four-year-old African-American Recy Taylor, who was kidnapped and gangraped by six white men in Alabama in 1944 — she traveled the state documenting these abuses.
“Whites would accuse you of causing trouble when all you were doing was acting like a normal human being instead of cringing,” she explained. Parks wrote repeatedly of the “major acrobatic feat” of negotiating white supremacy against Black people. This work with the NAACP was dangerous, and she was part of a small group willing to do it. She grew discouraged — and Raymond even more so — by the fears and “complacency” of many other African Americans. “A militant Negro was almost a freak of nature to [white people],” she lamented, “many times ridiculed by others of his own group.”
Elsewhere, Parks wrote: “There is just so much hurt, disappointment and oppression one can take . . . The line between reason and madness grows thinner.” She noted the constant pressure to acquiesce and that there was “no solution for us who could not easily conform to this oppressive way of life.”
In reading Parks today, it is striking how much she stressed the difficulty of dissenting and the pressure that came down on those who did so. She theorized the effort and ostracism of being a rebel and how the system was designed to prevent being one, a testament to decades of being a grassroots activist. If contemporaries like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Bayard Rustin thought deeply about the same theme, they didn’t write about it to the same extent.
Parks struggled with this pressure and hostile climate for more than a decade before the bus boycott began — despairing for years, alongside Nixon and Carr, that no mass movement was emerging.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott
The bus, with its visible arbitrariness and expected servility, stood as one of the most visceral experiences of segregation in Jim Crow Montgomery. “You died a little each time you found yourself face to face with this kind of discrimination,” Parks noted. A trickle of Black Montgomerians had resisted segregation on the city’s buses in the decade before her stand. In 1944, Viola White was arrested for refusing to give up her seat; she was beaten and fined ten dollars. Her case was still in appeals when she passed away ten years later. Rosa Parks’s neighbor, Hilliard Brooks, was killed by police for resisting on the bus in 1950.
Then on March 2, 1955, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to relinquish her bus seat. The police dragged her off the bus, and when she fought their manhandling, they charged her with assaulting an officer. Rosa Parks fundraised for Colvin’s case and invited her to be secretary of the Montgomery NAACP’s Youth Council, which Parks had started the year before to train and encourage young people to take stronger stands against segregation.
When community leaders petitioned the city for better treatment after Colvin’s arrest, Parks refused to attend: “I had decided I wouldn’t go anywhere with a piece of paper in my hand asking white folks for any favors.” In the summer of 1955, Parks attended a two-week workshop at Tennessee-based Highlander Folk School; this rejuvenated her spirits, and she redoubled her efforts with the Youth Council.
Four days before her arrest, Parks attended a packed mass meeting. The lead organizer in the Emmett Till case, Dr. T. R. M. Howard, had come to town to bring the bad news that the two men who killed Till had been acquitted. Parks was angry and despairing. There had been more attention to Till’s case than any other they had worked on, and still the men walked free.
Rosa Parks had been kicked off the bus several times for being unwilling to follow the practice of some Montgomery bus drivers, who forced Black people to get off the bus after they paid and reboard from the back. That night, December 1, 1955, when she refused bus driver James Blake’s order to move, Parks thought about her grandfather and his gun. She thought about Emmett Till. And she decided to stand fast. “Some people say I was tired . . . The only tired I was was tired of giving.”
Although shy by nature, Rosa Parks was not quiet that night. When Blake decided to have her arrested and the police boarded the bus, asking why she didn’t move, she countered, “Why do you push us around?” It was not about a seat next to a white person, she later explained: “I have never been what you would call just an integrationist. I know I’ve been called that . . . Integrating that bus wouldn’t mean more equality. Even when there was segregation, there was plenty of integration in the South, but it was for the benefit and convenience of the white person, not us.” Her aim was “to discontinue all forms of oppression.”
Montgomery’s Black residents were at a breaking point. Late that night, when Parks decided to pursue a legal case, the Women’s Political Council (WPC) sprang into action. WPC leader and Alabama State professor Jo Ann Robinson went to the college in the middle of the night and, with the help of a colleague and two students, ran off thirty-five thousand leaflets reading, “Another woman has been arrested on the bus . . .”
The leaflet didn’t say Rosa Parks had been arrested; it was the accumulation of injustice that was clear. The boycott would continue for 382 days — fueled by organized Black Montgomerians that set up forty pick-up stations around town. At the height of the boycott, the Montgomery Improvement Association was coordinating ten thousand to fifteen thousand rides per day.
The Parks family had been living in the Cleveland Court Projects for twelve years when she was arrested. Five weeks after her bus stand, she was fired from her job as an assistant tailor at Montgomery Fair Department Store; shortly after, Raymond lost his job as a barber at Maxwell Airforce Base. The family plunged into poverty.
Despite the boycott’s successful conclusion a year later, the Parks family still faced death threats and could not secure steady work. So eight months after the boycott’s end, in August 1957, they left Montgomery for Detroit, where her brother and cousins lived.
She called it “the Northern promised land that wasn’t.” They still struggled to find work or a decent place to live for years. In 1965, newly elected congressman John Conyers hired her to work in his Detroit office. A decade after her bus stand, Parks had at least attained a modicum of economic stability. She finally got health insurance.
Rosa Parks’s Global Vision of Freedom
Rosa Parks lived for nearly five decades in Detroit. She detested the city’s housing and school segregation, job exclusion, and brutal policing, all too reminiscent of Montgomery. She fought for more public housing and welfare benefits, joined union struggles, and pressed for Black history in every part of the curriculum.
Parks had long drawn sustenance from the militancy of young people. Here again she did — working alongside a growing Black Power movement. She loved Malcolm and Martin Luther King, Ella Baker and Queen Mother Moore. For her, “any means to show we are dissatisfied” was essential, and she took part in scores of initiatives against social injustice.
During the 1967 Detroit uprising, police killed a number of Black residents, including three unarmed teenagers at the Algiers Motel. When no police were indicted and the media refused to investigate, young radicals decided to hold a “People’s Tribunal.” When they asked her to serve on the jury, she agreed. When young people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) helped build an independent Black political party with local residents in Lowndes County, Alabama, Parks journeyed down to support them. When Detroit judge George Crockett challenged the mass arrests of people attending a Republic of New Afrika (RNA) convention by setting up court in the police station, the police union launched a petition to impeach him. So she joined the campaign to protect him. She visited the Black Panther school in Oakland; attended the 1968 Black Power convention in Philadelphia; served on staff at the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana; helped organize many local prisoner defense committees (including for Joan Little, the Wilmington Ten, and the RNA Eleven); and fought for reparations with the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA).
Parks’s vision of freedom was global. An early opponent of US involvement in Vietnam, she opposed US policy in Central America in the 1980s and protested US complicity in South African apartheid. Eight days after 9/11, she joined Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover, and other civil rights activists to demand the United States work through international institutions and not resort to war.
Simply having Black people in high places was not Parks’s definition of justice. She issued a public statement against Clarence Thomas’s appointment to the Supreme Court (before Anita Hill’s testimony was made public), dismayed that the Supreme Court was “turning its back on the undeniable fact of discrimination and exclusion.” Given Thomas’s poor record on civil and voting rights, his appointment “would not represent a step forward in the road to racial progress but a U-turn on that road.”
Sometime in the 1990s, an older Rosa Parks doodled over and over on a paper bag “The Struggle Continues . . . The Struggle Continues . . . The Struggle Continues.” To the day she died, in October 2005, she insisted: “Don’t give up and don’t say the movement is dead.”