Black Herstory: Rosa Parks Did Much More than Sit on a Bus

As a Black feminist scholar, every February I find myself troubled by the ways that we simultaneously remember and forget women who look like me. Not that I’m satisfied with the memory of Black women every other month of the year but February–Black History Month–can be especially disappointing. I find myself wanting to rant to anyone within earshot, “Rosa Parks did more than sit on a bus!!!”

My urge to scream is rooted in our common cultural practice of remembering Parks only as a demure and delicate old seamstress who sparked the civil rights movement. The common assertion is that Parks’ moment in history began in December 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery, Ala. But we must confront this assertion, because each time we confine her memory to that moment we erase part of her admirable character, strategic intellect and indomitable spirit.

To be clear, Rosa Parks left us a deliberate legacy of activism, not an accidental activist moment. Furthermore, she, like many other Black women, should not be remembered in the shadows of Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. or any other Black male civil rights activist, but rather right alongside of them. We must realize and teach that when Rosa Parks was helping lay the foundation for the civil rights movement, Dr. King was still in high school.

At the intersection of sexism and racism, it is not surprising that we remember Rosa Parks as demure and delicate, since the image of her sitting quietly with her hands folded politely in her lap is commonplace. However, if we get beyond our stereotypical expectations of who a Black woman can be, we bear witness to her steely grace and steadfast commitment to defending human dignity. She had been doing so for years before she ever got on that bus.

Rosa Parks was taught as a child to sleep with her clothes on in case she was awakened during the night to run from the Klan. Parks, as one of the first women to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), traveled throughout segregated Alabama to document racialized voter intimidation and brutality. It was Rosa Parks who interviewed Recy Taylor, a Black woman violently raped by six White men, and helped form the Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor. Parks was also a woman who vigorously supported the NAACP, Montgomery Improvement Association, Alabama Voter’s League and Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, just to name a few of her key activist roots.

Then in 1955 at age 42, she, like the women who did so before her, refused to give up her seat because of the color of her skin. Soon after that historic moment, those who loved her pleaded with her not to become the central figure of the Montgomery bus boycott–but it was Rosa Parks who courageously did so anyway, for her sake and for ours.

Please remember her this month, and every month, for all of who she was on the day she refused to give up her seat and changed our lives: a bold, remarkable, fierce, benevolent and righteously indignant woman. And join me in revealing more hidden activist histories of Black women. We can begin with those whose names we know, but then we must seek out the names and herstories of those we don’t. If you accept my invitation, here are some good books in which to begin the enlightenment: Freedom’s Daughter: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970; At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance-A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power; and Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC.

Photo from Flickr user Matt Lemmon under Creative Commons 3.0.

 

Comments

  1. Thank you for this article. It invigorates me, reading of the empowerment and the victories of women of colour.

    • Laura,

      You are of course welcome; please join in the effort and help raise consciousness about the hundreds of women who remain invisible and/or unknown. Who do you want us to know about?

      My best,
      Rachel

  2. Rachel we are right there with you Dr. Sistah, it is frustrating how society wants to not only pick our (s)heroes but also acculturate them into passive figures that make the majority culture feel better and safer. Thanks for reminding us to celebrate our month in a holistic way.

  3. Rex,

    I couldn’t agree more – if we could remember a number of key historical figures more holistically I think we would learn more about how to move progressively forward in terms of social change. Your sentiment rings sad but true to me as well – if Black women are positioned as passive, unintelligent, etc. then it is easier to justify the ways that we have been maltreated at the intersections of multiple oppressions and to celebrate individual moments of progress rather than recognizing that millions deserved to assert their dignity the way that Rosa Parks did throughout her life.

    My best to you,
    Rachel

  4. my salute to rosa park
    http://www.enkoppte.se/rosa-park/

  5. Great piece. One of the most popular essays published by my employer Rethinking Schools is called, “The Politics of Children’s Literature: What’s Wrong With the Rosa Parks Myth” by Herb Kohl (not the U.S. Senator!) and it explores the themes you mention in your article. If interested, you can see it and download it for free at our Zinn Education Project website. http://zinnedproject.org/posts/596

  6. Let’s not forget Claudette Colvin, either! She refused to move from her seat even before Rosa Parks.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claudette_Colvin

  7. Thanks for writing such a fine article. The real Rosa Parks inspires us all to become activists but the mythical Rosa Parks supports the belief that progress is just “evolution.”

  8. One part of the Rosa Parks story that is usually passed over is her profession as “seamstress”. Reportedly she was an excellent one and had private customers as well as those in the store where she worked. Planning, cutting, stitching and fitting clothing teaches a person the value of their own self worth. The creative aspects are good for the calming of the soul. The good work habits carry over to the other jobs in their lives. Sewing cannot be dismissed as just “women’s work”, it is work that helps validate a woman’s positive attitude about herself.
    Just my thoughts, but I like them.

  9. THANK YOU for this post. There is a wonderful documentary that was circulating around the United Church of Christ (Congregational roots) that included a broad overview of Mrs. Parks and all her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, including the organization of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I was singing with a praise team and they were doing “What Can One Little Person Do?” It’s a well-meaning song about civil rights and human dignity, but it’s a good example of how a white church can get the history SO WRONG. As though Sojourner Truth was Moses and created the Underground Railroad single-handedly… same with Rosa Parks. Women are almost always at the forefront of the real hands-on action of social change but rarely credited as leaders. This is not to take away from Sojourner Truth or Rosa Parks, but to show that they were effective movers and shakers within a greater movement. I’m a white woman who is constantly frustrated by “Black History Month.” Black history is every single DAY. Bless you for posting this. Amy Barlow Liberatore, and here’s a poem about the subject:
    http://sharplittlepencil.com/2011/04/05/black-history-month/

  10. This piece is AMAZING! Was doing research for class but so glad i took to the time and come across it! Cant wait to share!!

    Love!

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