Rosa Parks, who died a few days ago at the age of 92, had long since joined Martin Luther King Jr., as the two iconic figures of the civil rights revolution. Highways and subway stations have been named in her honor and she was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most significant persons of the twentieth century. During the third game of the World Series, there was a moment of silence in her honor.
Parks is mostly remembered as a symbol of ordinary blacks’ determination to resist the indignities of the Jim Crow system, the woman whose refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger sparked the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56. But she was much more than a seamstress with tired feet. Parks was a veteran of political activism dating back to the 1930s. Her career underscores not only the role of individual acts of courage in the struggle for racial justice, but the movement’s now-forgotten pre-history of local activism in which communists, socialists, unionists, Garveyites and the NAACP cooperated, sometimes uneasily. This was Rosa Parks’s world.
Her grandfather was an admirer of Marcus Garvey and his message of racial pride; her husband, Raymond Parks, was a founder of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP. During the 1930s, Rosa Parks took part in meetings protesting the convictions of the Scottsboro Boys that brought together a broad coalition of left-wing and mainstream black Alabamans to expose the state’s judicial system as a travesty.
During the 1940s, while serving as secretary of the local NAACP chapter (whose leader, E.D. Nixon, was a black unionist), Parks doggedly persisted in trying to register to vote. After twice being turned away, allegedly because the well-read Parks had failed a literacy test, she became one of the few black residents of Montgomery added to the voter rolls. Later, she worked in the home of Virginia and Clifford Durr, prominent white supporters of civil rights, and through their auspices attended training sessions at the Highlander school in Tennessee, a meeting ground for black and white activists.
When Parks made her gesture of defiance on December 1, 1955, her action was neither planned nor entirely spontaneous. She knew that local black leaders, led by Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at a black college, were already planning a bus boycott. Parks may have been inspired to act because an all-white jury in Mississippi had just acquitted the murderers of Emmett Till, the black teenager who had allegedly whistled at a white woman. None of this, of course, detracts from her heroism, or the danger she faced as a result. Indeed, while the bus boycott succeeded, Parks in 1957 was forced to leave Montgomery because of persistent death threats.
Like King, frozen in memory on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial delivering his “I Have a Dream Speech,” Parks is now forever recalled as the simple woman who helped to bring down segregation-an inspiring image, and one wholly unthreatening to white America. A fuller picture of her life should make us also remember the many unsung heroes and heroines who came before and after her.