(This post is written in honor of Black History Month, which is currently being marked across the US, as well as Rosa Parks’ birthday on February 4th)
“Work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed”—Vaclav Havel
I thought I knew the story of Rosa Parks (which is why it was a no-brainer to add her to our list of peace heroes back when I started this project six years ago). But what I discovered, as I delved more deeply into her life story, was that what I thought I knew wasn’t altogether historically accurate. It was sobering to realize that I, like many others, had bought into a certain heroic narrative about Parks that wasn’t true. Her heroism was of an altogether different quality than what I’d always imagined. And far more challenging to me on a personal level, because it asked me that maddeningly uncomfortable question of whether or not I would have the courage to go and do likewise.
Here is some of what I learned.
Rosa Parks was the granddaughter of former slaves—a bit of history that is often glossed over in the many biographical sketches written about her, but which hit me with tremendous force when I first came across it (not least because I had just finished writing the unit on slavery in the US). Born in Alabama in 1913, it’s astounding to think that Parks grew up in a home where the experience of slavery was part of the life-story of people she loved dearly. How often do we stop to consider the impact this would have had on little Rosa? How slavery, though abolished before she was born, was still a living, breathing reality in the home where Parks was raised?
If slavery was the backdrop to Parks’ life, the Jim Crow laws were at the center of her day-to-day experience. Jim Crow was a legally sanctioned system of racially discriminatory practices that prohibited blacks from coming into physical contact with or sharing the same public spaces as whites. Though blacks and whites were, in theory, eligible to the same rights (“separate but equal”), in practice, the black community in the South was repressed and oppressed in every sphere of public and private life. The Jim Crow laws were, in effect, slavery by a different name, literally rendering black life less valuable than white life. The effects of this discrimination did not pass over little Rosa, who felt it, for example, when she walked six miles to school and back each day, because only white schools were provided with school buses.
Parks has often been depicted as a quiet and submissive person. And yet, given her history and experience, it should not surprise us (though it does) that Parks was not one to be silenced into submission by the discriminatory system she was living under. Even as a child, Parks got in trouble with her grandmother for “talking biggity to white folks” when she challenged a white bully who had been taunting her. She told her grandmother that she “would rather be lynched than live to be mistreated and not be allowed to say ‘I don’t like it’” (qtd. in Theoharis).
This streak of rebellion was fundamental in shaping Parks’ response to Jim Crow as she grew older—a rebellion that was expressed in a quiet determination to contribute what she could towards the advancement of equal rights for all American citizens. To that end, she became involved in the struggle for civil rights long before she was catapulted into the spotlight by the famous bus incident of 1955. Already in 1943, Parks joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where she served as secretary for the Montgomery chapter for twelve years. In her own discreet way, Parks spent many years “pushing for voter registration, seeking justice for black victims of white brutality and sexual violence, supporting wrongfully accused black men, and pressing for desegregation of schools and public spaces” (Theoharis).
The incident that Parks is best known for occurred on December 1, 1955, when she was returning home from a long day at work. The bus Parks boarded was quite full, and within a short time there were no seats left. The driver went to the back of the bus and told Parks and three other passengers to give up their seats for the white passengers on board. But Parks refused. She was tired—tired from a long day of work, but more tired still of the incessant injustice of the system she lived under. In that moment, Parks’ tiredness got the better of her, and she decided not to comply with the bus driver’s request. The outraged bus driver called the police, who arrested Parks upon arrival at the scene.
Parks’ arrest set in motion a chain of events that very quickly spiraled into a full-blown boycott by the black community of the public transport system in Montgomery. Leaders in the civil rights movement (including Martin Luther King Jr.) recognized in Parks’ arrest an opportunity to further their fight for social justice, and they took full advantage of the moment to spark a mass movement of nonviolent protest against racial discrimination in the South. Perhaps this is why Parks has often been called the “mother of the civil rights movement” and has been credited with single-handedly propelling the movement to action.
But this is not true. In fact, we overlook an important part of history when we put this slant on the story, missing entirely what it is that makes Parks a hero. Because the truth is that Rosa Parks was not the first brave person to refuse to give up her seat on a segregated bus, nor was she the first to be arrested and fined for her defiance. In fact, there had been as many as four other women arrested in Montgomery for the same “offense” in the months leading up to that fateful evening on December 1, 1955.
And yet, though she was not the first person to defy the injustice she experienced, she was the first person to be in the right place at the right time for her act of defiance to explode into history the way that it did. It is important to understand this, not only because it gives the honor due to the women who went before Parks and helped pave the way for the eventual desegregation of buses in Montgomery, but also because it highlights the true nature of Parks’ heroism, which is her long and ongoing commitment to the cause she believed in. Parks’ defiance of the unjust segregation laws did not occur in a vacuum. Had she not faithfully and proactively lived out her convictions in all the years leading up to the bus incident, Parks probably would not have had the courage to finally say “no” when the moment of truth stared her in the face.
But there is yet another often overlooked aspect to Parks’ heroism, which is that she acted as she did without any assurance of success. Parks’ defiance, like the defiance of those before her, was incredibly brave precisely because it had not, until that moment, made a dent in the system it was defying. Parks didn’t know that she would become a symbol and spark a boycott that would eventually lead to the desegregation of buses in her city. The only thing she knew was that the other women in Montgomery who had refused to give up their seat on the bus were arrested and fined for their actions, before returning to the anonymity of their previous life. And yet, though she probably expected her own stand against the racist system to go unnoticed and be forgotten, Parks knew that it was something she had to do anyway, for her own integrity and the integrity of her people.
It is her enduring perseverance and determination to act in accordance with her deepest held convictions, even when there was no promise of success, which makes Rosa Parks a true peace hero. It’s a kind of heroism that is far more challenging than the grandiose, single moment kind of heroism, because it requires an ongoing commitment, even (and especially) when everything feels dark and hopeless. This, I believe, is the true legacy of Rosa Parks. May it inspire each one of us to work for that which is good, regardless of whether or not it stands the chance to succeed.
Boyd, Herb. “In Memoriam: Rosa Parks.” The Black Scholar 35.3 (Winter 2006): 42-44. JSTOR. Web. 3 June 2016.
Theoharis, Janne. “How History Got the Rosa Parks Story Wrong.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 1 Dec. 2015. Web. 20 Jan. 2019.