It’s a story we’ve all been told: Small, quiet Rosa Parks refused to follow an Alabama bus driver’s order to give up her seat to a white passenger. Her subsequent arrest sparked the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott and cemented her position in American history textbooks as “the first lady of civil rights.” But the act of nonviolent resistance for which Parks is so well known was just one of her many formidable contributions to feminism and the modern civil rights movement. What better time than today, the 100th anniversary of her birth, to recall her decades of radical civil rights activism and her lifelong commitment to women’s rights and racial equality.
Parks had been involved in the civil rights movement for years before her act of defiance became the catalyst for the bus boycott. Throughout the 1940s, Parks and her husband, Raymond hosted Alabama Voter League meetings at which they urged members of their community to spurn intimidation and register to vote. Parks herself successfully registered to vote on her third attempt in 1945. Parks joined the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in 1943 and, as secretary, took advantage of her activist networks to continue to fight for gender and racial equality.
Possibly motivated by her own experience—a handwritten essay discovered after her 2005 death recounts her attempted rape at the hands of a white neighbor in 1931—much of Parks’s early activism focused on cases of interracial sexual violence. In the early 1930s, she and Raymond raised money for the defense of the “Scottsboro Boys,” a group of nine African American teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women. In 1944, she spearheaded the NAACP’s investigation of the brutal gang-rape and attempted murder of Recy Taylor, an African American woman. Parks joined other activists in founding the “Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor,” which turned into an international movement that the Chicago Defender called the “strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade.”
Rosa Parks continued to dedicate herself to defending victims of sexual assault and of African American men and boys wrongly accused of the rape of white women in the years leading up to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, joining other activist African American women in coming to see a woman’s “bodily integrity” as a central aim of the civil rights movement. In 1954, Parks and the membership of the Women’s Political Council threatened a boycott of Montgomery’s buses in response to the protests of African American women who had complained of being sexually harassed and inappropriately touched by white bus drivers. For Parks and the thousands of women who depended on bus transportation, “Our existence was for the white man’s comfort and well-being; we had to accept being deprived of just being human.”
Despite attempts to downplay the courage Parks demonstrated in refusing to give up her seat on that Montgomery bus, there is no doubt that she chose—strongly, radically, decisively—to stay seated. Indeed, Parks’ feet weren’t particularly sore that day, but her patience was exhausted. Fed up and bolstered by the 10 days she had spent just months before her arrest at the Highlander Center, a Tennessee labor and civil rights organizing school where she interacted with other pioneers of the civil rights movement and studied previous challenges to Jim Crow in Montgomery and Baton Rouge, Parks channeled her years of activism into this rebellious act. “There had to be a stopping place,” she said, “and this seemed to be the place for me to stop being pushed around. I had decided that I would have to know, once and for all, what rights I had as a human being and a citizen, even in Montgomery, Alabama.”
When news of Parks’ arrest made its way to Jo Ann Robinson, head of the Montgomery Women’s Political Council, Robinson activated social networks that had been in place since her support of Recy Taylor, setting the wheels in motion for the bus boycott that her group had been planning for years. In her 2009 book, When Everything Changed, Gail Collins argues that Parks, Robinson and the Women’s Political Council were both more organized and more radical the men of the Montgomery Improvement Association who often get credit for organizing the boycott. Unlike the association’s ministers and the fresh-faced Martin Luther King, Jr., who would vault to national prominence as the face of the boycott, Parks had been preparing for her particular act of defiance for years.
Rosa Parks remained dedicated to the causes of African American and women’s rights for decades after Montgomery. After she and Raymond were forced to leave Montgomery due to economic hardship and threats against them, they relocated to Hampton, Va., and then Detroit. There she worked for two decades in the office of U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a fellow civil rights activist. She rallied in favor of “Black Power” throughout the 1960s and ’70s, becoming a supporter of Malcolm X and the militant Robert F. Williams, and served on the board of Planned Parenthood. In the 1980s, Parks co-founded both the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development to involve young people in their communities and introduce them to historical sites associated with the Underground Railroad and the civil rights movement. Parks died in 2005 at the age of 92.
Rosa Parks did much more than stay seated on a bus: a model of determined strength, passionate commitment, and radical courage, she dedicated her life to standing for the powerless. Happy birthday to the revolutionary Rosa Parks!