Rosa Parks: two thoughts

1. Until Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in Montgomery, Alabama, public transportation systems in the South bolstered white supremacy through de jure segregation. Today, Montgomery runs 16 integrated buses, but the larger Alabama city of Birmingham has no public transportation system at all. Those facts exemplify a more general trend. In the 1950s, we had a fairly robust public sector and substantial economic equality, although African Americans were excluded and, in institutions like the Alabama bus systems, flagrantly denigrated by the state itself. Today the government is mostly careful not to discriminate on the basis of race. But it provides totally inadequate public goods for everyone.

2. The following is pretty well known but bears repeating: Rosa Parks was not just a nice lady who was tired one day and suddenly refused to give up her seat. She was also a skilled activist for social justice. The evening that she defied Jim Crow, she was on her way home to mail materials about the local NAACP election. Membership in an Alabama chapter of the NAACP was a radical step that required physical courage. Moreover, Parks had gone to the Highlander Folk School to study nonviolent social change with an interracial group. Highlander was then directed by Miles Horton, a great radical American who, as Nick Longo shows (pdf), was a direct disciple of Jane Addams. Addams, in turn, had learned politics from her father, an associate of Abe Lincoln. Parks’ political lineage could equally well be traced back to W.E.B DuBois and the other founders of the NAACP.

Dr. King said that Rosa Parks provided a good example for the desegregration struggle because she was recognized as “one of the finest citizens of Montgomery–not one of the finest Negro citizens–but one of the finest citizens of Montgomery.” It is important to notice what “citizen” meant in this case. Parks was not just a volunteer, a member of civic associations, and someone who wanted to vote. She was a self-conscious and sophisticated political activist who belonged to a powerful political network with a long history. Thus the story of Rosa Parks is not only about individual acts of courage and principle; it is also about organization, theory, and tradition.

[In an earlier version of this post, I implied that Rosa Parks’ civil disobedience occurred in Birmingham, which is not the case.]

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2 Responses to Rosa Parks: two thoughts

  1. airth10 says:

    Did you say that Birmingham has no public transportation? Is private instead?

  2. Peter Levine says:

    I believe that’s true. I used to have a clipping from the early 1990s that described the termination of bus service in Birmingham. I believe that in the 1950s, buses were provided by a private company that held the municipal franchise. Then the city took over the system. And finally, it cancelled all regular bus service for budget reasons.

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