(The following post is by Jeanne Theoharis, distinguished professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and the author of the award-winning “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.” A revised edition of the book has just been published with a new introduction drawn from the recently opened papers at the Library of Congress.)
“We are having a difficult time here, but we are not discouraged. The increased pressure seems to strengthen us for the next blow.”
–Rosa Parks writing a colleague during the Montgomery bus boycott
Sixty years ago, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus. Her decision lead to a yearlong bus boycott and galvanized a new chapter of the modern black freedom struggle. But too often it ends there. In our public imagination of the boycott, she kicks it off and then fades into the background. The movement just seems to happen.
The problem with this story is that it backgrounds all the work – the organizing, the building, the fundraising and traveling – that laid the ground work for that moment to turn into a movement and the effort that kept it going for a year. It turns the Montgomery bus boycott into an obvious event that was destined to succeed, rather than one created by the visions, efforts and continued steadfastness of ordinary people.
What transformed Rosa Parks’ courageous refusal into a movement was a group of seasoned activists in place in Montgomery and a community that united in struggle. Rosa Parks was one of those seasoned activists. Yet the crucial part she played in the boycott’s continuation, not simply as its spark, has not been widely acknowledged. The new collection of Rosa Parks’ papers and photographs that opened at the Library of Congress last February demonstrates vividly the significant role Rosa Parks played not just in catalyzing but in laying the groundwork and maintaining the yearlong bus boycott.
Parks’ papers had languished out-of-sight for nearly a decade following her death in 2005, because of a dispute over her estate. In fall 2014 the Howard Buffett Foundation bought the papers and entrusted them to the Library of Congress as a 10-year loan. These newly opened papers confirm her “life history of being rebellious,” as she put it – that began decades before her bus stand and continued for decades after. While many across the country will be marking the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott and Rosa Parks’ galvanizing act, this essay quotes from speech notes, letters and other personal writings found in the Library’s collection to frame the story through her own words.
For more than a decade before her bus stand, Rosa Parks worked alongside union activist E.D. Nixon to transform Montgomery’s NAACP into a more activist chapter – “getting registered to vote, examin[ing] cases of police brutality, rape, murder, countless others.” She found it demoralizing, if understandable, that in the decade before the boycott “the masses seemed not to put forth too much effort to struggle against the status quo,” and she noted how those who challenged the racial order like she did were labeled “radicals, sore heads, agitators, trouble makers.”
Parks understood that her refusal to give up her seat meant she might “be manhandled but I was willing to take the chance. … I suppose when you live this experience…getting arrested doesn’t seem so bad.” Though the rightness of her actions may seem self-evident today, at the time, those who challenged segregation were often treated as “troublemakers” by many white people and some black people. Her writings show how she struggled with feeling “desolate” and crazy, even amidst other sympathetic individuals. “Such a good job of brain washing was done on the Negro,” Parks observed, “that a militant Negro was almost a freak of nature to them, many times ridiculed by others of his own group.”
Her surprise and delight at the movement that followed her refusal to give up her seat on the bus on Dec. 1, 1955, comes through clearly, calling the community’s reaction to her arrest “startling” in a letter to a friend. In speeches, she noted the power of organized protest on the participants themselves “We surprised the world and ourselves at the success of the protest.”
Rosa Parks lost her job five weeks after her arrest, as did her husband, and they struggled economically for many years. Despite her family’s own imperiled situation, Rosa Parks spent much of the boycott year on the road raising attention and funds for the movement back home. As she told a Pittsburgh audience in 1957, the “2 block bus ride of Dec. 1 has taken me to many places.” Going from Seattle to Los Angeles, from New York to Baltimore to Chicago to Indianapolis, by bus, car, train and plane, she brought news of the boycott across the country, turning a local struggle into a national one. Photos, datebooks, programs and speech notes found in the collection reveal her key role in raising attention and funds for the movement back home. White lawyer Clifford Durr referred to her as one of the Montgomery Improvement Association’s best fundraisers. According to news reports, she spoke “brilliantly” to audiences, while in letters home she wrote about how heady yet tiring her experiences were.
For one month, Parks also served as a dispatcher in the car pool created to sustain the year-long boycott. Police and local whites constantly harassed the car pool. Attempting to break the boycott, the city indicted 89 boycott leaders (including Parks) in February 1956. But people kept going. The boycott is “more than successful,” Parks wrote, “in spite of all the obstacles placed against us.” Her faith sustained her. “I do not feel alone, God is with me,” she told a reporter.
Rosa Parks saw the point of the protest as larger than a seat on the bus but dismantling a system of oppression. On the back of a program the day the Supreme Court declared Montgomery’s bus segregation unconstitutional, her speech notes read “happy to hear of it,” but there was “more work to be done.” Despite the boycott’s successful end, the Parkses still continued to receive death threats and couldn’t find steady work. Eight months later, they left Montgomery for Detroit, where her brother lived. There, Rosa Parks would remain active in the struggle for justice in Detroit and across the country for the next half a century.
Looking at Rosa Parks’ actions during the boycott demonstrates vividly there was nothing predestined about its success. People chose, amidst threats to their person and their livelihood, to take repeated action to make it happen. But the version we are often taught turns it into a museum piece to be admired, the gold standard of American protest now mistakenly used to diminish contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter. By reading Rosa Parks’ papers, we see the effort and sacrifice the boycott took and the lessons and parallels it offers to struggles for justice today.
Selected items from the Rosa Parks collection will be accessible online in the early months of 2016. A few resources are currently available as part of this primary source gallery for teachers.