A Heroine for Transit Rights

Rosa Parks’ civil rights activism started early

An often overlooked aspect of the story of Rosa Parks, the civil rights icon whose refusal to move from her seat for a white passenger during the segregated south in the mid-1950s and subsequent arrest helped spark the modern civil rights movement, is that Parks’ choice that day was part of a planned, intentional act of demonstration against the racist Jim Crow laws of Montgomery, Ala., her hometown at the time.

A pervasive narrative not entirely accurate is that the seamstress, tired from working on her feet all day and well worn to the maladies of the racist societal norms that had affected her entire life up to that point, decided spontaneously in that moment of the confrontation to take a stand by remaining seated.

The fuller truth is the late Parks, whose birthday was on Monday, Feb. 4 had been a dedicated civil rights activist her entire life.

More than 10 years before her famous refusal to move on that bus in Alabama in 1955 when the white section filled and the first row of the black section was to make way for more white passengers, Parks was thrown off another bus by the same bus driver, James Blake, for using the white entrance--at the front of the bus--while she was the secretary of a city chapter of the NAACP, in 1943. During that time she also witnessed her brother, a veteran of the Second World War, face discrimination after returning home.

Several months before the Dec 1, 1955 arrest, Parks attended a two week long workshop on Highlander Folk School in Tennessee where several activist groups developed skills on leadership and civil disobedience.

Two other arrests of young black women activists refusing to move to the back of the bus occurred that same year, one of which Parks and another woman, Virginia Durr, raised money for.

Parks action was the first phase of a planned boycott of the bus company, whose ridership was 70 percent black at the time, a campaigned that would cripple the bus line and spearheaded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The campaign had focused on Parks’ case, but she was as integral to that campaign as she was merely a symbol of it. Indeed, the fliers announcing the boycott of the bus line were dropped on the doorsteps of African American homes in Montgomery the very afternoon of her arrest and the campaign launched King as a national civil rights figure.

Even the photos of Parks have been misconstrued in history. For instance, the photo of her getting finger-printed, which is often cited as taking place on Dec 1, 1955, actually occurred months later, when Montgomery criminalized the carpools that she participated in, in support of the bus boycott.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was ultimately successful and in December 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a district court decision that had declared Montgomery’s system of segregated seating unconstitutional.