Jam Rock Magazine reports: The way we learn history shapes how we think about the present and the future. Consider what most Americans know about Rosa Parks, who was born 101 years ago, on February 4, 1913.
In the popular legend, Parks is portrayed as a tired middle-aged seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, who, at the spur of the moment after a hard day at work, decided to resist the city’s segregation law by refusing to move to the back of the bus on December 1, 1955. She is typically revered as a selfless individual who, with one spontaneous act of courage, triggered the bus boycott and became, as she is often called, “the mother of the civil rights movement.”
That popular legend is misleading. Parks’ defiance of Montgomery’s segregation laws was not an isolated incident. It was part of a lifelong crusade to dismantle Jim Crow. She was a veteran activist and part of a local movement whose leaders had been waiting for the right moment to launch a campaign against bus segregation.
In hindsight, it may appear that the boycott’s success was inevitable. In fact, its effectiveness was the result of the Montgomery leaders’ decisions about tactics and strategies and their capacity to mobilize thousands of ordinary people in a complex, year-long grassroots challenge to the city’s political and economic establishment.
Parks’ fierce determination to challenge racism was part of her upbringing. She recalled, “I had almost a life history of being rebellious against being mistreated because of my color.” Discussing her grandfather, Sylvester Edwards, she wrote, “I remember that sometimes he would call white men by their first names, or their whole names, and not say, ‘Mister.’ How he survived doing all those kinds of things, and being so outspoken, talking that big talk, I don’t know, unless it was because he was so white and so close to being one of them.”
In the 1930s, she and her husband, Raymond Parks, a barber, raised money for the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine young, black men falsely accused of raping two white women. Involvement in this controversial cause was extremely dangerous for southern blacks. In 1943, Parks became one of the first women to join the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In the 1940s and 1950s, the NAACP was considered a radical organization by most southern whites, especially politicians and police officials. Joining the NAACP put its members at risk of losing jobs and being subject to vigilante violence.
In 1943, Parks made her first attempt to register to vote. Twice she was told she didn’t pass the literacy test, which was a Jim Crow invention to keep blacks from voting. In 1945, she passed the test and became one of the few blacks able to exercise the “right” to vote. She served for many years as the NAACP chapter secretary and director of its youth group. As NAACP youth director, Parks helped black teenagers organize protests at the city’s segregated main public library because the library for blacks had fewer (and more outdated) books, but blacks were not allowed to study at the main branch or browse through its stacks.