for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery AL bus
One need only see the fierce look of clarity and resistance in her eyes in the mugshot taken at the time of her arrest in Montgomery to know that there was so much more to who she had been, who she was, and what she became. Like others who have been elevated to the status of civil rights icons, we must become more aware that she was part of a movement with many facets, part of a fierce resistance to injustice that involved many names we may never know, and also many mentors and co-activists on the road to justice.
It is fitting that we tell her story yet again, not just as an individual, but as part of groups of women and men, guided by those that came before them in the pursuit of freedoms. Freedom for black women from rape, freedom to vote, freedom of equal transportation and to share public spaces, freedom to throw off the yoke of racial and economic injustice.
It is also fitting that only a few days after the loss of Pete Seeger that we include him in the telling of this history.
Please continue reading below the fold.
This is not the first time I've written here about Rosa Parks, and it will not be the last. In "Rosa Parks was not timid or tired," I explored some of the newer research and perspectives on her life, presented by Jeanne Theoharis, in The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, and Theoharis' shorter piece in Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle.
This time I'd like to discuss more fully some of those who mentored her activism, who worked beside her, and how the threat and enactment of rape on black women were key in the development of her unflinching courage and commitment.
We stand on the shoulders of the ancestors, and it is clear that one of Park's spiritual ancestors was Ida Wells-Barnett, who refused to give up her seat on a train to a white man in 1884.
I refused, saying that the forward car [closest to the locomotive] was a smoker, and as I was in the ladies' car, I proposed to stay. . . [The conductor] tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand. I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn't try it again by himself. He went forward and got the baggageman and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out.Barnett was also a relentless foe of the racist white-inflicted terrorism of lynching and rape.
Wells was forcefully removed from the train and the other passengers--all whites--applauded. When Wells returned to Memphis, she immediately hired an attorney to sue the railroad. She won her case in the local circuit courts, but the railroad company appealed to the Supreme Court of Tennessee, and it reversed the lower court's ruling. This was the first of many struggles Wells engaged, and from that moment forward, she worked tirelessly and fearlessly to overturn injustices against women and people of color.
by Katherine Mellen Charron (UNC Press)
Around this time, Clark was active with the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. She first attended a workshop there in 1954. Myles Horton, the founder of Highlander, quickly hired her as the full-time director of workshops. Before long she was teaching literacy courses, drawing on her experience on John's Island. "In a compressed week's workshop, Clark promised to turn sharecroppers and other unschooled Negros into potential voters..."The Civil Rights Movement Veterans website, which documents Southern Freedom Movement activities and participants, has photos of Clark with Parks, and also a shot of the vile smear campaign billboards that were put up across the south accusing Parks and MLK Jr. of being "communists" simply because of participating in Highlander workshops and training sessions.
Highlander was one of the few interracial schools in the South at the time and Clark prospered as a teacher there. After being fired and unwelcomed in her hometown, Clark found Highlander to be a great community. In 1959, while she was teaching at Highlander she was arrested for allegedly “possessing whiskey,” however these charges were later dropped and seen as false.
Clark and her cousin, Bernice Robinson, expanded and spread the program. They taught students how to fill out driver's license exams, voter registration forms, Sears mail-order forms, and how to sign checks. Clark also served as Highlander's director of workshops, recruiting teachers and students. One of the participants in her workshops was Rosa Parks. A few months after participating in the workshops Parks helped to start the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Additionally, many other women who took part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott attended Highlander, under the teaching of Clark. Upon seeing the success of Clark, Ella Baker traveled to Highlander as a representative of SCLC and observed to see if Clark’s program could be incorporated into SCLC’s Crusade for Citizenship.
The Highlander Folk School, established by Myles Horton, was one of the birthing places of not only movement organizing around education, but also of many of the songs and anthems of civil rights. Many were adapted and rewritten by Zilphia Horton, and popularized by Pete Seeger, among others. For an in-depth interview with Miles Horton, please take a look at Bill Moyers' The Adventures of a Radical Hillbilly. The documentary We Shall Overcome tells the story:
Narrated by Harry Belafonte, We Shall Overcome begins in an isolated wood frame church, deep in the Sea Islands of South Carolina, where spirituals like "I Will Overcome" helped blacks endure the long and brutal years of slavery. Veterans of a 1945 tobacco strike in nearby Charleston explain how it seemed natural to make "We Will Overcome" their rallying cry.
At Myles Horton's Highlander Center in Tennessee, white folk singers like Pete Seeger and Guy Carawan first encountered the song from the strikers and changed the lyrics to "We Shall Overcome." These "Peoples' troubadours" began teaching the song to the young activists of the Civil Rights movement. Over historical footage of themselves during the Sixties, the SNCC Freedom Singers, Julian Bond and Andrew Young reminisce about what this song meant during the sit-ins, voter registration drives and protest marches of those heroic years. We hear popular folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary introduce the song to audiences across the country and Joan Baez sings it at the 1963 March on Washington.
Pete Seeger talks about that time in a 2006 interview.
Then came the bus boycott.
In the Sisters in the Struggle : African-American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement, we learn more of the activities of other key women who were organizing:
civil rights activist and educator in Montgomery, Alabama
Fred Gray, the black attorney, had called Jo Ann Robinson and told her about my arrest. She got in touch with other leaders of the Women's Political Council, and they agreed to call for a boycott of the buses starting Monday, December 5, the day of my trial. So on the Thursday night I was arrested, they met at midnight at Alabama State, cut a mimeograph stencil, and ran off 35,000 handbills. The next morning she and some of her students loaded the handbills into her car, and she drove to all the local black elementary and junior high and high schools to drop them off so the students could take them home to their parents. This is what the handbill said:Jo Ann Robinson has written her own memoir of that time.
This is for Monday, December 5, 1955.
Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown into jail because
she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus and give it to a white
It is the second time since the Claudette Colvin case that a Negro
woman has been arrested for the same thing. This has to be stopped.
Negroes have rights, too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses, they
could not operate. Three-fourths of the riders are Negroes, yet we are
arrested, or have to stand over empty seats. If we do not do something
to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or
your daughter, or mother.
This woman's case will come up on Monday. We are, therefore, asking
every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial.
Don't ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on
You can afford to stay out of school for one day. If you work, take a cab,
or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don't ride the bus at all
on Monday. Please stay off all buses Monday.
But before the boycott, before Highlander, Rosa Parks dealt with fighting back against the nightmare that every black girl and woman lived with daily: rape by white men. In 1944 she became involved as NAACP Secretary in the case of the brutal rape and abduction of Mrs. Recy Taylor. This part of her history is documented in "At the Dark End of the Street".
In this groundbreaking and important book, Danielle McGuire writes about the rape in 1944 of a twenty-four-year-old mother and sharecropper, Recy Taylor, who strolled toward home after an evening of singing and praying at the Rock Hill Holiness Church in Abbeville, Alabama. Seven white men, armed with knives and shotguns, ordered the young woman into their green Chevrolet, raped her, and left her for dead. The president of the local NAACP branch office sent his best investigator and organizer to Abbeville. Her name was Rosa Parks. In taking on this case, Parks launched a movement that ultimately changed the world.McGuire has also written about recently discovered writings from Parks about her own brush with rape:
In 2011, Rosa Parks was in the news, six years after her death. An excerpt from a breathtaking essay she wrote in the 1950s about a “near rape” by a white man in Alabama was released to the public. The handwritten narrative detailed Parks’ steely resistance to a white man, “Mr. Charlie,” who attempted to assault her in 1931 while she was working as a domestic for a white family.Contrary to the stereotyped and more passive images we have been inculcated with about Parks, I was not a bit surprised to find Parks, like many of us, believed strongly in self-defense. Jeanne Theoharis discussed this on Democracy Now!
It was late evening when “Mr. Charlie” pushed his way into the house and tried to have sex with her. Having grown up in the segregated South, she knew all too well the special vulnerabilities black women faced. She recalled, for example, how her great-grandmother, a slave, had been “mistreated and abused” by her white master.
Despite her fear, she refused to let the same thing happen to her. “I knew that no matter what happened,” she wrote, “I would never yield to this white man’s bestiality.” “I was ready to die,” she said, “but give my consent, never. Never, never.” Parks was absolutely defiant: “If he wanted to kill me and rape a dead body,” she said, “he was welcome, but he would have to kill me first.”
AMY GOODMAN: Who was Rosa Parks’ hero?Charles Blow also mentioned this in a piece for the NY Times.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Rosa Parks’ hero, she describes as Malcolm X. She very much—she loved, she admired, she had—I mean, she had tremendous admiration for King, but she describes Malcolm X as her personal hero. Rosa Parks was a lifelong believer in self-defense. Obviously she gets that from her grandfather. In many ways, Malcolm X reminds her of her grandfather. Malcolm X’s willingness to sort of talk about sort of Northern liberalism and Northern hypocrisy, Malcolm X’s very early opposition to the war in Vietnam—all of these things are very similar to her sort of political outlook, and therefore, I think, she very much looks to him.
Parks was mostly raised by her grandparents. Her grandfather, a follower of Marcus Garvey, often sat vigil on the porch with a rifle in case the Klan came.So should you happen to read any of the pablum being doled out during Black History Month about the tired older woman who just sat down on that bus, be aware that though yes, Rosa Parks did refuse to give up her seat, and yes she will always be recorded in history for having done so—know the whole story, not just of Parks the individual at one moment in time, but Parks as a symbol of a mass movement which is ongoing—for justice, for equality and an end to racism, racist violence and systemic inequity.
In honor of Rosa Parks, Septima Clark and all those ancestors we can take action, and push the struggle forward—together.