Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks in 1955.
February 4 (today in the US) is the 100th birthday of Rosa Parks, one of the icons of the USA’s Civil Rights Movement. The photo at right shows her in 1955, the year she famously refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. That refusal, and her arrest for “disorderly conduct”, led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the rise of Dr. Martin Luther King (also pictured).

It’s hard for young people to imagine what those times must have been like, but Parks defiance didn’t happen in a vacuum, with several murders committed in the months before. In August 1955, Emmet Till was murdered because he supposedly flirted with a white woman. Earlier that month, civil rights activist Lamar Smith was shot to death in broad daylight, allegedly with many white witnesses having seen the killer. In May of that year, civil rights activist George W. Lee was shot as he as driving, forcing him to run off the road. He died before he got to the hospital.

What those three murders had in common was that they were committed because the victims were black. Till was 14 when he was murdered, and became a symbol of violent racism in the South. What connected Smith and Lee was the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, through which they were fighting for voting rights. Parks attended a meeting of the RCNL a few days before her famous act of civil disobedience.

I learned about Rosa Parks in school, but not about the others; that came years later. I think it’s important to realise what that atmosphere was like in order to fully understand how powerful and even poetic a simple act like refusing to give up a bus seat was. I was incorrectly taught, however, that Parks refused to stand up because she was tired. She wrote in her autobiography, Rosa Parks: My Story (link is to Amazon):
People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.
Much of the change in the years after Rosa Parks’ defiance happened slowly, and some wounds have still not healed. No one was ever convicted for the murders of Till, Smith or Lee, though Till’s murderers confessed in an interview after they were acquitted and could no longer be tried for their crime.

As for Parks, she eventually moved to Detroit, where she died in 2005, aged 92. In the photo below, from April 2012, President Barack Obama sits in the bus that Rosa Parks remained seated in (the bus is now in the Henry Ford Museum). He’s seated in the same row, but on the opposite side of the bus, as Parks.

When I think of Rosa Parks, I remember a slogan from my activist days that went something like this: “Rosa Parks sat down so others could stand up.” I always liked that for the way it shows how even small acts can have big, positive consequences. The world is a better place because of people like Rosa Parks, and we should never forget that.

President Obama sits in the same row, but opposite side, of the bus where Rosa Parks made history.
The photos used in this post were taken by the US Government and are in the public domain.


Roger Green said...

Check out the 1st comment on my Rosa Parks post. And I wonder why posting on the Times Union site is so discouraging: http://blog.timesunion.com/rogergreen/rosa-parks-was-a-troublemaker-i-mean-that-in-a-good-way/3255/

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

And yet you kept your cool… People like that are all over the Internet, people prepared to believe what they believe and don't want facts or truth getting in the way. That's precisely why I wanted to mention that I had been taught incorrectly,