The way we learn history shapes how we think about the present and the future. Consider what most Americans know about Rosa Parks, who died last October at age ninety-two.
In the popular legend, Parks is portrayed as a tired old seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, who, on 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.”
Although a number of books—including Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters, Stewart Burns’s Daybreak of Freedom, and Parks’s autobiography, My Story—provide a complete chronicle, most of the obituaries for Parks lacked historical context and trivialized the efforts that it took to destroy Jim Crow.
What’s missing from the popular legend is the reality that Parks was a veteran activist whose defiance of segregation laws was not an isolated incident but a lifelong crusade. Also downplayed is that Parks was part of an ongoing 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 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 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 and served for many years as chapter secretary and director of its youth group. 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. Also in 1943, Parks made her first attempt to register to vote. Twice she was told she didn’t pass the literacy t...
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