the real Rosa Parks

(Washington, DC) I have long known that Rosa Parks was not a tired secretary who just decided one day to sit in the front section of the bus because there were no open seats in the back. I knew that the Montgomery bus boycott was a planned and laboriously organized social action; Rosa Parks was a highly trained and experienced activist. Telling the false story has long seemed to me a form of “civic education malpractice”: we are teaching students that reform happens automatically and randomly, when the real story is about skillful, courageous, long-term organizing.

But I didn’t really know the most important story about Rosa Parks until I heard a brilliant presentation in Detroit by Professor Danielle McGuire, author of At The Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. McGuire shows that Parks was already one of the most effective and respected civil rights leaders in the whole South by the 1950s. Specifically, she had focused for almost two decades on white men’s sexual aggression and violence against black women. One of her great battles was the Recy Taylor case. In 1944, a gang of racists had raped Taylor and dropped her in the middle of town; Parks investigated the case on behalf of the NAACP and organized a national publicity effort to get the rapists prosecuted.

Parks’ background is directly relevant to the Montgomery Bus Boycott because the most salient injustice on the buses was not the segregated seating pattern. Most of the black riders were female domestic servants traveling to White neighborhoods to work in private homes where sexual harassment was routine. The drivers, who were white men, armed and deputized as police officers, routinely sexually harassed and sometimes sexually assaulted these African American women on their way to and from work. That injustice was the impetus for the boycott, conducted and organized by female domestic workers.

Making all black people sit in the back of the bus was profoundly unjust, but it’s part of a story that now feels comfortable, which may explain why Rosa Park has become an uncontroversial national icon, featured on stamps, awarded a state funeral, used as the name of avenues and boulevards.

Imagine how difficult it would be to digest and discuss this story: White men rape or sexually humiliate black women. Rosa Parks fights that violence, drawing on militant theories about race and sex (e.g., Marcus Garvey’s black nationalism) to develop her own views. The Montgomery buses are particular sites of sexual violence. Women organize to withdraw their business from the bus system and create their own alternative transportation network. Their boycott is taken over by black male leaders who choose to downplay the sexual aspect of white supremacy so that they can attract wider support for their main agenda, which is to end de jure racial segregation.

Here are some of the uncomfortable aspects of that–real–story: Rosa Parks was angry and radical. Unjust policies changed only because she and others were organized and politically effective. Certain injustices did yield to pressure; we no longer have white sections of public buses. But other injustices remain unacknowledged and have diminished only slightly (if at all): rape is an example. The reform movement began with women working on an explicitly sexual issue. They yielded the stage to men because a different issue (racial segregation in public services) was easier to deal with. Finally, integration, or the mixing of people, is not necessarily beneficial, because the original problem was not separation but the direct exposure of black women to white men. A separate transportation system run by black women for black women–which began during the boycott–may actually have been more just than an integrated public system.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.