By Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar
This week marks the 60th anniversary of the arrest of Mrs. Rosa Parks that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the major catalysts for the Modern Civil Rights movement. When it comes to the Civil Rights movement, Parks’ well-deserved recognition does not contextualize her actions. She refused to give up her seat on a bus to a White man and her subsequent arrest led to a boycott. A deeper look at her work — before and after the boycott — affords us greater appreciation for her incredible life’s work and deepens our understanding of the daunting depths of injustice that she confronted … and conquered. Refusing her seat was one of the smaller indignities against which she fought in life.
Parks’ celebrated resistance to segregated seating on a public bus focuses attention on one of the most innocuous illustrations of codified racial subjugation confronting people of color in the United States. Restricted seating on a bus would rank among the least dehumanizing and oppressive in comparison with examples like: denying people access to hospitals, public floggings, Whites-only hiring, abusive law enforcement, preventing citizens from voting, serving on juries, state-sponsored torture, rape, and murder. We affirm the true measure Rosa Park’s bravery when we recognize that she challenged it all.
Parks spent years training, volunteering and pushing back against the boundaries of oppression and injustice. In the 1930s, as a young woman in her early twenties, she protested the infamous Scottsboro Boys case that railroaded eight Black boys to death sentences and one for life in prison on trumped-up charges of rape. She and her husband, Raymond Parks, operated through the NAACP in a state that viewed the organization with such contempt that terrorists, elected officials, and everyday racists sought its destruction. (Alabama eventually outlawed the NAACP deeming its demands for equality and democracy as subversive in a state that systematically denied both.) By the 1940s, Parks emerged as a noted organizer to seek justice for Black women who suffered sexual terror at the hands of their oppressors.
Parks famously led the effort to investigate and seek justice for Recy Taylor, a Black woman who was kidnapped and gang raped by six White men when returning from church with friends in September 1944. Parks, through the NAACP, played an instrumental role in the formation of the “Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor” (CEJRT). Eleven years before the bus boycott, Parks solicited membership in the CEJRT from across the country, attracting luminaries like W.E.B. Du Bois, Mary Church Terrell, and Langston Hughes to the cause. As a consequence, the Taylor Case consequently received national attention in the Black press. Even though some of the rapists admitted to the crime, all-White male juries refused to even indict the rapists. Despite her disappointment at this outcome, Parks remained active in a local network of organizers in the state and region.
In the summer of 1955 Parks attended the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which taught the principles and tactics of social justice organization, skills that she utilized in responding to the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi. By December 1, 1955, she earned respect as a veteran of civil-rights work and as an admired member of the community who demonstrated her mettle as a fearless activist. Her decision to be the lightning rod for the bus boycott came with risks.
Though a young, unknown local minister, Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. reluctantly assumed the leadership of the bus boycott, Parks immediately experienced retribution. Her employer fired her. She and her husband received a barrage of death threats, which did not dissuade her from remaining active in the movement after the 181-day boycott ended.
After moving to Detroit, she worked for U.S. Congressman John Conyers for many years and continued to be involved in human rights work—including the Black Power movement. Throughout her life, she advocated for social justice. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. A statue of Parks sits in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.
Mrs. Rosa Parks iconic status extends far beyond simply being tired after a long day at work. She repeatedly risked her life to demand more significant freedoms and opportunities than being able to sit on a bus or to drink from integrated water fountains. Understanding the scope of her activism requires an appreciation of the special bravery and tenacity that she — and countless others — brought to the struggle for freedom against improbable odds. A courageous fighter, she understood and valued the utility of activism, struggle, bravery and love of justice in profound ways. She is an extraordinary model of what struggle for social justice can look like.