Sixty years ago, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus and was arrested. Her courageous action galvanized a yearlong community boycott and helped usher in a new chapter of the Black freedom struggle. It is now one of the most well-known stories of the civil-rights movement—imparted to school children across the United States. Yet much of what students are taught, and much of what most Americans think they know, about Parks’s activism is wrong. Here are corrections to ten commonly circulated myths about Rosa Parks:
- Rosa Parks wasn’t meek. Parks had a “life history of being rebellious,” as she put it. As a child, she stayed up with her grandfather as he guarded their house with his shotgun against Klan attacks. She picked up a brick when a white kid threatened to punch her. When her grandmother, who worried about her “talking biggity to white folks,” reprimanded her, the young Rosa cried, “I would rather be lynched than live to be mistreated…[and] not be allowed to say ‘I don’t like it.’” In the 1930s and ’40s, Parks took part in dangerous organizing work—both with her husband, Raymond, in defense of the Scottsboro Boys, and with E.D. Nixon, a Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters organizer who then became president of Montgomery’s NAACP, in seeking justice for lynching, rape, and assault victims. She hated how “a militant Negro was almost a freak of nature to [white people], many times ridiculed by others of his own group.”
- Nor was she passive in key moments. The summer before her arrest, she had grown tired of meetings with city officials around black community concerns about bus segregation that went nowhere: “We would be given some vague promises and given the run-around.” She refused to go to another meeting: “I had decided I wouldn’t go anywhere with a piece of paper in my hand asking white folks for any favors.” That December evening, when the police boarded the bus to arrest her and asked why she didn’t move, she countered, “Why do you push us around?”
- She wasn’t the first to be arrested on the bus. A number of black Montgomerians had resisted segregation on Montgomery’s buses. When Viola White did in 1944, she was beaten and fined $10; her case was still in appeals when she passed away 10 years later. In 1950, police shot and killed Hilliard Brooks, a World War II veteran, when he boarded the bus after having a few drinks and refused to reboard from the back door—and the police were called. Witnesses rebutted the officer’s claims that he acted in self-defense, but he wasn’t prosecuted. Emboldened by the 1954 Brown ruling, the Women’s Political Council had written Montgomery’s mayor that there needed to be change on Montgomery’s buses or the community would boycott. Then on March 2, 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to relinquish her bus seat. When a white rider hollered at her that she had to get up, a young girl, Margaret Johnson, responded in her defense, “She ain’t got to do nothin’ but stay black and die.” Police arrested Colvin and charged her on three counts. The black community was outraged and initially mounted some resistance (Parks served as a fundraiser for Colvin’s case), but ultimately decided against a full-blown campaign on Colvin’s behalf, seeing her as too young, feisty, and emotional. (Despite popular belief, Colvin was not pregnant at the time the community decided not to pursue her case but got pregnant later in the summer.) The impact of these incidents accumulated—and Montgomery’s black community was at a breaking point by December 1955.
- Nor was it her first act of bus resistance. Montgomery’s segregated buses mandated black riders at the back, whites in the front, and a middle section in which both black and white passengers could sit (though not together)—and black people could be asked to move for white passengers. Bus drivers carried guns. Some Montgomery bus drivers would make black people pay in the front, but then force them to get off the bus, and re-board through the back door (so they didn’t even walk by white passengers). Parks had been kicked off the bus a number of times for refusing to abide by this practice, including by the very driver, James Blake, who would have her arrested on that December evening. “Over the years I have been rebelling against second-class citizenship. It didn’t begin when I was arrested,” she said. “Some people say I was tired” when she refused the bus driver’s order to move to the back of the bus, but, as she explained in her autobiography, “The only tired I was was tired of giving.”
- It wasn’t just about a seat on the bus. When Blake told her to give up her seat, Parks thought of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who had been lynched in Mississippi in August, and the recent acquittal of the two men who had killed him. She thought about the many years she’d been fighting for criminal justice for black men wrongfully accused of crimes and for black women who could find no justice after being raped. She later wrote that, when the bus driver said he would have her arrested, she mused, “Let us look at Jim Crow for the criminal he is and what he had done to one life multiplied millions of times over these United States.” It was not about a seat next to a white person: “I have never been what you would call just an integrationist. I know I’ve been called that…. Integrating that bus wouldn’t mean more equality. Even when there was segregation there was plenty of integration in the South, but it was for the benefit and convenience of the white person, not us.” Her aim was “to discontinue all forms of oppression.” Hearing of Parks’s arrest and her decision to pursue her case, the Women’s Political Council called for a one-day boycott the day Parks was to be arraigned in court. Buoyed by the success of that first day, the community at a mass meeting that night decided to extend the boycott. A young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a galvanizing speech and would emerge as the movement’s leader. A separate federal court case was filed, with Colvin as one of the plaintiffs (Parks was not). Three hundred and eighty-two days later, Montgomery’s buses were desegregated.
- Her courage wasn’t just a one-day thing. And she loved the spirit and militancy of young people. In the 1950s, she organized the Youth Council of the Montgomery NAACP, encouraged its members to take a strong stance against segregation, and following Colvin’s arrest, made her secretary. Parks asked Colvin to tell her story over and over to inspire others. Parks believed in youth leadership, and young people’s need to be heard and treated with dignity. So while she was deeply distraught by the Detroit uprising of July 1967—a turbulent four days sparked by a police raid of a black after-hours bar that brought out the National Guard and witnessed the deaths of 43 people, 33 of whom were black—she understood that “the establishment of white people…will antagonize and provoke violence. When the young people want to present themselves as human beings and come into their own as men, there is always something to cut them down.” When young radicals organized a People’s Tribunal around the police killings of three young black men at the Algiers Motel during the Detroit uprising (after no police were indicted and the media refused to investigate), she agreed to serve on the jury. And when SNCC helped build an independent black political party with local residents in Lowndes County, Alabama, that took the black panther as its symbol, Parks journeyed down to support them.
- Rosa Parks was not a political carbon copy of MLK. When the Montgomery bus boycott began, Rosa Parks was 42, a seasoned activist, while Martin Luther King was 26, a new minister pastoring his first church. Parks grew up in a family that supported Marcus Garvey, began her adult political life with the Scottsboro defense alongside her husband Raymond, and spent the next decade with E.D. Nixon pushing to turn the Montgomery NAACP into a more activist chapter. Mentored by legendary organizer Ella Baker, she was inspired by the political visions of Highlander Folk School leaders Septima Clark and Myles Horton, when she attended the adult-organizer-training school the summer before her arrest. Throughout her life, she believed in the power of organized nonviolence and the moral right of self-defense and described Malcolm X as her personal hero.
- She wasn’t a middle-class church lady who dreamed only of heaven and the hereafter. Although Parks was demure in demeanor, the Parks family wasn’t middle class. They lived in the Cleveland Courts projects when she made her bus stand; Raymond was a barber and Rosa an assistant tailor, altering white men’s clothes at Montgomery Fair Department Store. Her bus stand plunged them into a decade of economic instability and deep poverty. In 1965, newly elected Congressman John Conyers hired her to work in his Detroit office. This stabilized the family’s situation, but they never were able to afford to own their own home. Parks was a woman of deep Christian faith, but to her, Christianity required justice and action in this world. “Faith without works is dead,” she wrote.
- And she spent more than half her life in the North. Eight months after the boycott’s successful end, still unable to find work and facing death threats, she moved with her husband and mother to Detroit, where she lived for nearly five decades. She called it “the promised land that wasn’t.” During an interview on the 10th anniversary of the boycott, she remarked, “I can’t say we like Detroit any better than Montgomery.” She didn’t find “too much difference” between the systems of housing and school segregation, job exclusion, and policing from Montgomery to Detroit—so she set about to challenge the racial inequality of the North, alongside a growing Black Power movement. She attended the 1968 Black Power conference in Philadelphia and the 1972 Political Convention in Gary, and visited the Black Panther Party School in Oakland during the 1979–80 school year. “I’m in favor of any move to show that we are dissatisfied,” she explained.
- And those famous pictures of her being fingerprinted and her mugshot… well, they’re not actually from her first arrest. There was no fanfare around Parks’s bus arrest. While unsure if she would “get off the bus alive,” she didn’t imagine her stand as the prelude to something big. She wrote a colleague a few months later how “startling” the community’s reaction and boycott of the buses was to her. Over the next few months, the city tried to break the boycott. Police harassed boycott leaders, and then, the city indicted 89 of them (including Parks) on an old anti-boycott law. She and E.D Nixon presented themselves for arrest: “Are you looking for me? Well, I am here.” She was photographed being fingerprinted, and her mugshot circulated publicly.
Reckoning with Rosa Parks, the lifelong rebel, moves us beyond the popular narrative of the civil rights movement’s happy ending with the passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. It reminds us instead of the long and ongoing history of racial injustice in the United States and the wish Parks left us with—to keep on fighting.
We’ve developed a full learning and teaching resource to this end—Learning Rosa Parks through Criminal Justice. Sixty years later, it’s time to start teaching Rosa Parks right.