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February 5, 2008

Rosa Parks

Yesterday was the birthday of Rosa Parks. Since February is also Black History Month, we figured we should pay homage to one of the Civil Rights Movement's most famous women, the "Mother of the Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement".

Everyone knows the story of Rosa Parks and her refusal to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger. Of course, she was so much more than that but not many people realize everything else that Rosa Parks actually did for the Civil Rights Movement before and after the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She was active in the movement long before the bus boycott, was a member of the Voters' League, and was one of the only female members of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, serving as their volunteer secretary for many years.

The story about the bus is a nice little anecdote, but not many people realize that it was a carefully orchestrated move.

The NAACP was looking for an activist who could be the symbol for their cause, one who could stand up to the legal and media attention. Activists were in the process of raising money and building a case around the arrest of Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl who was active in the NAACP's Youth Council, ater she was arrested after refusing to give up her seat on a public bus on March 2, 1955. She was meant to be the symbol for their cause, but when it came out that she was pregnant, they decided that the press would use that information to undermine any boycott.
Parks was considered an ideal plaintiff for a test case against the segregation laws. She was married, employed, politically savvy, and highly regarded in Montgomery. On December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus and was promptly arrested and charged with a violation of Chapter 6, Section 11 segregation law. She was found guilty on charges of disorderly conduct, but she appealed the conviction and formally challenged the legality of racial segregation. This act of "civil disobedience" launched the successful bus boycott and the creation of the"Montgomery Improvement Association, of which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was elected president.

Rosa Parks became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement and later in life worked for John Conyers, an African American U.S. Representative and served on the Board of Advocates of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She also co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development in February 1987, which runs "Pathways to Freedom" bus tours introducing young people to important civil rights and Underground Railroad sites.

She won a number of awards over the years including the NAACP's highest honor, the Spingarn Medal (1979), induction into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame (1983), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1996), the International Freedom Conductor Award (1998), and the Congressional Gold Medal (1999).

She died on October 24, 2005, at the age of ninety two.


We thought it was important to talk about Rosa Parks this month and to try to tell more of her story than what people usually hear. We heard from someone recently who had heard a segment about Black History Month on Don Imus's radio show. That wouldn't be our first choice of a source for info about black history, but okay. Apparently at the end of the segment the woman said something about hoping that someday Black History Month would no longer be necessary. The person who heard this felt like that was a positive sentiment, that we've come so far in the last few decades that it's worth questioning whether we still need things like Black History Month.


We think that it would be great if someday everybody felt that Black History Month was no longer necessary. (Although we don't think that would mean that it should stop just because it could stop.) We just don't think that day is here yet. Getting rid of Black History Month (and Women's History Month, Asian Heritage Month, etc.) would mean that the true lives and voices of black men and women would have to be fully integrated into the 'rich old white men's history' that we started with, and that is happening, but it's a slow process. (Can you tell that one of us wants to feel like she's using her history degree today?)

So until that happens, we're not going to shut up. Well, we're not going to shut up about anything ever anyway, but we're especially not going to about 'our' history. Because we owe Ms. Rosa and so many other awesome women (and men) who worked with her and before her and after her, and we're not going to forget that.

1 comment:

May said...

Hey Neat! One of my coworkers just told the story about Rosa and the 15 year old girl today. He challenged us with the thought that these people gave up public transportation for over a year, which meant they had to walk to work every single day. Such incredible dedication these people had.