On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Louise Parks, like all Black people who traveled by public transportation in Montgomery, Ala., boarded the front door of the metropolitan bus and paid her fare to the driver. Then she had to immediately get back off the bus, walk to the back door of the bus, re-enter and take a seat in the section labeled “for colored only.” Three stops later the bus was filling up with white people.
Though Parks and three other Blacks were clearly sitting in the area designated for “colored only,” the bus driver demanded that they give up their seats. He physically moved the “colored only” sign several rows back so their seats could be taken by whites. The other riders gave up their seats, but Rosa Parks didn’t budge.
This was not a spontaneous act of defiance. Rosa Parks may have been weary, but she risked physical abuse, arrest and jail not because she had worked a full day and was tired, but because she was part of a growing movement of African Americans sick and tired of discrimination and racism. This act of civil disobedience was the culmination of years of community and organizational activity and Parks had been an active participant for many years.
Rosa Parks, encouraged by her husband Raymond, had joined the Montgomery NAACP. Subsequently, she held numerous appointed and elected positions, among them adviser of the Youth Council and secretary and treasurer of the chapter. The NAACP had discussed defying bus segregation for some time. Parks was also active in the fight to free the Scottsboro Nine and participated in union struggles for equality with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. These activities and organizational ties were the bedrock for preparing her for the momentous historical act of refusing to give up her seat.
Prior to Parks, several other women had challenged the segregated bus seating, but for various reasons the Black community was not ready or able to support their courageous defiance of Jim Crow laws.
In 1955, Parks, 42, was convicted of disorderly conduct for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. She was fined $14. Right after her arrest, the Montgomery Improvement Association was founded. This primarily church-based group elected a very young representative to spearhead the boycott of the municipal bus company. His name was Martin Luther King Jr.
In total solidarity for a year and a month, the Black citizens of Montgomery supported the King-led movement as they walked, carpooled, biked and found whatever means necessary to attend to their daily lives of work, school, church, community and social activities.
This united effort deprived the business community and the transportation system of tens of thousands of dollars that Black citizens contributed to the economy of Montgomery. After going through lower levels of the court system, the Supreme Court on Nov. 13, 1956, ruled that segregated buses were unconstitutional.
While dignitaries and politicians of all political stripes are busy paying tribute to the unassuming, quiet, gentle heroine who died Oct. 24, the scourges of racism, sexism, unemployment, poverty, and segregated schools still thrive in the United States. Many of the same politicians who paid tribute to Rosa Parks are actively promoting policies that are the antithesis of her life mission of nonviolence and peace.
President Bush paid tribute to her courage. He also laid a wreath in tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. The following day he introduced legislation to kill the Civil Rights Act. Condoleezza Rice paid tribute, and the following day the Bush administration nominated Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court — a candidate who represents policies that endanger the rights of women, children, and workers, the very human rights that Rosa Parks spent her life defending.
These hypocrites who capitalize on Parks’ legacy find it easy to pay tribute to a heroine of peaceful protest as they send young Americans off to die in an illegal war in Iraq. These national leaders are the same people who have ignored the plight of the tens of thousands of poor people, primarily poor Black and people of color, who were devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Wilma. They praise Parks’ compassion and dedication to the dispossessed, while out of the other side of their mouths they propose legislation to weaken and destroy Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public education and child services.
Celebrating Rosa Parks’ legacy by confronting injustice and fighting for genuine human rights must become a national priority. The ultimate tribute to the “mother of the civil rights movement” is a united national movement to struggle for a true and just society for all races and all working people of our country and of the world.
Debbie Bell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is chair of the African American Equality Commission of the Communist Party USA.