Sitting down for her rights

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory
September 7, 2001

Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1 1955. Her action triggered the famous Montgomery bus boycott and earned her the title "mother of the civil rights movement". Writing about the boycott that catapulted him to fame, Martin Luther King, Jr said that Parks had been "tracked down by the Zeitgeist ". Were it not for Rosa Parks, some said, no one would have heard of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Parks's arrest features in histories of the Southern freedom struggle, and she has published an autobiography, but Douglas Brinkley is her first significant biographer. One reason for this is that Parks never again played a prominent protest role. White pressure compelled her to leave Montgomery after the boycott.

A Detroit resident for more than four decades, Parks quickly became a symbolic figure; someone to be presented at rallies, conventions and fundraisers. When the absence of women became embarrassingly obvious to the organisers of the 1963 March on Washington, Parks was one of the token females added to the programme. When the movement sent out a nationwide call for supporters to continue a march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, the Detroit-based United Auto Workers union made sure that Parks could attend, and the march organisers eventually saw the value in having her in the front line when King and his supporters entered Montgomery in triumph. Similarly, when King was assassinated in 1968, Parks attended his funeral.

Between these symbolic appearances, Parks worked for the most part on the office staff of Detroit Congressman John Conyers. She lived modestly with her husband Raymond and her ageing mother, nursing both of them as their health failed. She made national headlines again when she was attacked and robbed by a black youth in her own home, an incident that newspapers readily interpreted as a commentary on black America at the end of the 20th century.

At times Brinkley implies that Parks was denied a more prominent and effective role by male chauvinism in the movement. At others, he suggests that she was more militant than her shy demeanour suggested.

However, although sexism did confine most women to the behind-the-scenes work of social protest, it is claiming too much to suggest that patriarchy alone prevented Parks from being an outspoken leader or a consistent frontline protester. Similarly, if one accepts that she found Malcolm X's rhetoric of racial pride attractive, and personally saw non-violence as just one tactical option, one should equally note that she regarded the Detroit ghetto uprising of 1967 as profoundly damaging for the city's black community and that she always cherished the support she received from sympathetic whites too much to embrace a harsh racial separatism.

If her post-boycott career was unspectacular, the biographer inevitably returns to why Parks refused to move on the evening of December 1 1955. Unusually, Brinkley has taken due note of Raymond Parks's work on the Scottsboro Boys Defence Committee, which made the Parks's modest Montgomery apartment a centre for Alabama's racial struggle as early as 1933. Similarly, Brinkley points out that Parks had been evicted from a bus in 1943 by the very same driver, James Blake, who reported her to the police in 1955. Until the fateful night, Parks had carried out her own boycott of any bus driven by Blake. A preoccupation, born of fatigue, caused Parks to board the December 1 bus without noticing the driver until it was too late.

Familiar elements to specialists - the earlier arrest of teenager Claudette Colvin, Parks's established role within the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, her close association with Montgomery's white progressives, Clifford and Virginia Durr, and her visit to the Highlander Folk School, a radical education centre, in the summer of 1955 - are recounted to establish the fact that Rosa Parks was no ordinary tired seamstress, but an established community figure.

Shrewdly, Brinkley also emphasises Parks's devotion to the African Methodist Episcopal faith and the self-respect instilled by her lifelong education. Of all the forces that anchored her so fatefully to her seat, none was more compelling than her sense of personal worth. Preachers and teachers had nurtured a dignity that enabled Parks, in Nelson Mandela's words, "to teach us how to sit down for our rights". During the boycott, her star was quickly eclipsed by King's, but unlike others in black Montgomery, Parks did not grow bitter. Transported briefly by destiny, and periodically summoned as a demure symbol, she travelled her life's course with quiet honour, along unspectacular byways of work, home and church.

Peter Ling is senior lecturer in American history, University of Nottingham.

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: The Life of Rosa Parks

Author - Douglas Brinkley
ISBN - 0297 60708 1
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £12.99
Pages - 248

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