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Riding the Bus to Equality

Rosa Parks didn't start the Civil Rights movement, but she was a key contributor.

Posted: February 15, 2008 5:20 p.m.
Updated: April 17, 2008 5:02 a.m.
In an attempt to grasp the significant contributions of African-Americans in the United States, Black History Month is the perfect opportunity to ponder, interpret and analyze several key events in American History.

Seldom is one defiant act of an African-American so over-interpreted for generations than that of Rosa Parks, a woman remembered for refusing to change her bus seat for a white man. In one swift move, Parks eventually became a symbol for African-Americans during a tumultuous time. Her refusal to heed to commands of a bus driver in 1955 is often cited as the impetus to a new era in the American quest for freedom and equality. However while Parks was a vital cog in America's progression in achieving racial equality, she did not single-handedly spark a civil rights movement that brought this country closer to freedom and justice.

To understand the true legacy of Rosa Parks, one must understand who she was. Most Americans know her as the 42-year-old seamstress who boarded a Montgomery city bus on Dec. 1, 1955, as part of her commute home from work and refused to give up her seat to a white man  because she was "tired." However, in her biography, Parks pointed out that she was symbolically tired.

"People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true," she said.

Indeed, Parks was protesting the treatment of non-whites and challenging a dark era of America's past. Her refusal to give up her seat was a statement that she would not give in just because of the color of her skin.

Vehicle for Change
Parks' action (or inaction) on that bus was not necessarily spontaneous, yet it would be unfair to say that she knew that her refusal to give up a seat would spark a massive bus boycott and propel Martin Luther King Jr., into the national spotlight.

In many respects, though, Parks did know what she was getting into when she refused to give up her seat. Twelve years earlier, she had a run-in with the same bus driver.
"When I made that decision," she added. "I knew that I had the strength of my ancestors with me."

She may have been tired of giving in to unjust laws and practices, but there was no way Parks could have predicted that her actions would be used as a springboard for an entire civil rights movement.

Yet to think Parks is a significant person just because she refused to give up a bus seat misses the point of what she symbolized to those who sought equality and human rights. If anything, she provided the perfect opportunity to make a statement against the status quo of segregation in the American.

While Parks was portrayed as someone who was spontaneously defiant, in reality she was the perfect symbol for change. She was someone African-Americans would relate to and someone that white judges could empathize with.

She was a vehicle for change, someone who was in the right place at the right time. Her actions on that fateful December afternoon in 1955 were actually quite innocent. Upon boarding the bus, she legally sat in the middle of the bus. After the bus filled and she refused the bus driver's request to give up her seat to a white man, she was arrested and convicted of violating the laws of segregation, known as Jim Crow laws.

It was when Parks appealed her conviction and formally challenged the legality of segregation that she became a symbol of civil rights.

An Icon
Taylor Branch noted Parks' symbolic status in "Parting the Waters": "Rosa Parks would make a good impression on white judges. Parks was without peer as a potential symbol for Montgomery's Negroes - humble enough to be claimed by the common folk, and yet dignified enough in manner, speech, and dress to command the respect of the masses."
Branch went into further detail about Parks' demeanor, explaining why she was an ideal choice to challenged the segregation law while simultaneously gaining support of the white majority.

"She wore rimless spectacles, spoke quietly, wrote and typed faultless letters on her own, and had never been known to lower herself to factionalism," Branch wrote. "A tireless worker and churchgoer, of working-class station and middle-class demeanor, Rosa Parks was one of those rare people of whom everyone agreed that she gave more than she got.

"Her character represented one of those isolated high blips on the graph of human nature."

It was that character that made Parks the icon she turned into. Yet to limit Parks' legacy to a few minutes on a bus does not paint a full picture of who she was. She had long been an activist before she made her stand on that Montgomery city bus.

As journalist Paul Loeb wrote in The Real Rosa Parks," she was quite the activist before she ever set foot on that bus in 1955.

"Parks didn't come out of nowhere," Loeb said.

She was very active in the local National Association of Colored People, which by itself was considered an act of defiance in Alabama. A Methodist, she served as a teacher and mother figure to the kids of the NAACP Youth Council. Her husband, Raymond, personally collected money for the defense of the Scottsboro Boys - the case of nine Alabama teenagers falsely accused (and convicted by an all-white jury) of raping two white women.

Though she was experience and likely cognizant of what she was doing on that bus, it would be a stretch to interprets Parks' defiant act single-handedly ignited a fight for freedom and equality while overlooking the significant contributions of those who stood with her toe-to-toe in the trenches and the painstaking efforts of civil rights activist before her.

"She didn't single-handedly give birth to the civil rights efforts," Loeb added. "Instead, she was part of an existing movement for change at a time when success was far from certain."

In fact, the NAACP had attempted to challenge the bus law several times before. It had considered pushing for a trial in the arrest of a 15-year-old girl who would not give up her seat, though they eventually backed off when the girl turned out to be pregnant.
Yet in Parks, the NAACP felt they found the ideal person to move the fight for equality forward. With Parks fighting in the courts and Southern civil rights activists leading a boycott of the Montgomery bus system, racial inequities of American society became more apparent and change would slowly take place.

The choice to support Parks was not an easy one, though. There was extensive deliberation and strategy between Parks, her husband Raymond and the NAACP. In fact, Raymond was opposed to his wife to go through with publicly fighting the case and challenging the Jim Crow laws.

"The white folks will kill you, Rosa," he said, pleading his wife to drop the case, hoping the arrest could be viewed as an isolated event. He feared that if her wife carried through with the legal challenge, it would become too political.

However, Parks ultimately decided to take her challenge to court, explaining to fellow NAACP activists: "If you think it will mean something to Montgomery and do some good, I'll be happy to go along with it."

After a hard-fought legal battle and an entrenched 381-day bus boycott, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the segregation law was unconstitutional, effectively reversing Parks' conviction and integrating Montgomery's buses. It was the first sign of true progress and Parks was a significant contributor.

Yet in honoring and remembering Parks' legacy, it is important to understand her significance and how she fit in the bigger picture of the Civil Rights Movement. It was a struggle that started well before her fateful bus ride. She was not the impetus for change, though Parks definitely did help personalize the deep racial inequalities of the American South.

Unsung Heroes
The fact that she did not jump-start the Civil Rights Movement "in no way diminishes the power and historical importance of her refusal to give up her seat," Loeb added. "But it does remind us that this tremendously  consequential act might never have taken place without the humble and frustrating work that she and others did earlier on.

"It reminds us that her initial step of getting involved was just as courageous and critical as the fabled moment when she refused to move to the back of the bus."

In celebrating Black History Month, remember the action of Rosa Parks. Yet do not forget the broader movement that she was a part of. Thousands of people risked their lives for equality and freedom before her, with her and after her. There are many unsung heroes who fight in the trenches daily. It is easy to overlook the grassroots organizing and movement-building behind significant, pivotal events such as the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Parks was definitely instrumental in America's progress over the last 50 years. Yet, do not forget the countless unsung heroes who helped her along the way.


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