The Montgomery bus boycott that Rosa Parks helped ignite, plan and carry out in 1955 was the opening salvo in what became one of the most influential social movements in the 20th century. It triggered not only the modern civil rights movement for Black Americans, but also rights-based movements for so many others — Asians, Hispanics, women, LGBTQ+ and so on. Such rights and social expectations have now become part of American society, and their influences have spread abroad.
But her activism began long before that Dec. 1, 1955, day that she refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white man. The incidents that helped set the steel in her spine were the sexual violence of whites against Blacks that were common to the Jim Crow South.
Parks and her husband, Raymond, worked on the Scottsboro Boys case in 1931, in which a group of nine young Black men were falsely accused for raping two white women in Alabama. In 1944, she investigated the gang rape by white men of a young black woman named Recy Taylor, also in her home state.
But the case that “guts her the most,” according to Jeanne Theoharis, author of “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” was the 1952 arrest of a Black teenager named Jeremiah Reeves, who was accused of raping a young white woman with whom he was having a consensual relationship. He was 16 when arrested and 22 when executed.
“[Police] actually put him in the electric chair at Kilby prison and told him that if he didn’t confess, he would be electrocuted on the spot, so he gave this false confession,” said Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a longtime friend of Parks. “She began writing letters and trying to organize around trying to block that execution, got Dr. (Martin Luther) King involved. And it didn’t succeed and he was executed. She would tell me how devastating that was, and how it broke her heart.”
You can see the full story in the video above. On this, the 109th anniversary of her birth, it’s important to remember that Rosa Parks is a national heroine not because her activism was always a success. It’s because she kept pushing, for years and then for decades, even when it was not.
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