Tuesday, November 01, 2005

rosa parks...one of many brave black folk.

my mom and i had a discussion last night about the legacy of rosa parks. i pointed out that while i admire rosa parks for her courage in rebelling against an unfair system, the facts behind her rebellion are often forgotten (or just not known), whether to give the story more drama or to give her more courage, i'm not sure. either way, rosa parks was not the first black person to refuse to get up from her seat on the bus.

fifteen year old claudette colvin was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. prior to this, there were several people who tried to protest the treatment of blacks on montgomery buses. in 1949, jo ann robinson, a black professor, was run from a bus after the bus driver screamed at her for sitting in the front of the bus. she later tried to gather organizations together for a boycott, but didn't receive immediate support. vernon johns, a local black pastor, tried to gather fellow bus passengers to leave a bus he was on after he took a seat in the front and was told by the bus driver to vacate the seat.

in other words, by the time rosa came into the picture, the various black organizations in montgomery were already strategizing how to combat this form of racism. rosa might have been the one to refuse to get up from her seat, but it was the actions of others who put the montgomery bus boycott in motion.

see, the naacp were looking for just the right case to challenge the bus law and begin the demolition of segregation in the south. in fact, they were initially going to use claudette colvin, but they later found out she was pregnant, which made her background vulnerable to the forces they were to fight against. rosa parks had been working for the naacp for a while up until then. she knew about the colvin case. she also took a workshop on race relations a couple of months before her well-documented moment of defiance. in rosa, the naacp had the perfect plaintiff. she was educated, older, married, and had a spotless reputation.

so when she got on that bus on december 1, 1955, she wasn't a seamstress too tired to give up her seat. she was a worker for the naacp who was determined to rebel against that form of racism.

the same night parks was arrested, jo ann robinson, the black professor from earlier in this tale, distributed handouts urging blacks to boycott the buses the following monday. leading religious leaders got together and decided to encourage their congregations to boycott. the one day boycott was a success, but then the question was whether or not to continue the boycott. when the group of religous leaders met again monday night, they formed the montgomery improvement association and elected martin luther king, minister of the dexter avenue baptist church, its president. it was decided they should continue the boycott.

this bus boycott was the beginning of the end of segregation and the match to the flame of the civil rights movement.

i write this not to diminish what rosa accomplished. i write this to enlighten folk to the fact that black folk were fighting against segregation long before she entered the picture. her rise to icon status ultimately diminishes what was tried and accomplished prior to her arrest, as no one speaks of the people who rebelled before, nor is it acknowledged that the black community in montgomery as a whole was working together to develop a strategy to combat the segregation on the buses and beyond prior to her arrest and that rosa became a part of that strategy. the civil rights movement as it's documented in history books started with the montgomery bus boycott. however, the daily defiance in the name of demanding those rights was going on years, decades before rosa, by plenty of folks who might not have been formally educated, but were knowledgeable about their rights under holy law.