Re-contextualizing Parks’ heroic stance as torch-bearer in a long struggle for equality
By Mahmoud El-Kati
Rosa Parks, given her humble and gracious disposition, would probably reject the label, “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.” With a profound respect for history, she was acutely aware that the movement for human and civil rights existed well before her birth in 1913. She understood that she was part of the ongoing struggle for human progress, which echoed from the days of Frederick Douglass, who died in 1895, just 18 years before her birth.
A bit of background: Also in 1895, Booker T. Washington, the “Wizard from Tuskegee,” delivered his famous speech, “The Atlanta Compromise,” which some considered a surrender to the doctrine of white supremacy. In the following year of 1896, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which decreed the doctrine of “separate but equal,” better known as segregation.
This decision, in effect, legally sanctioned that whites belonged to a superior caste, and that Black people were inferior to whites—bordering on “untouchability.” By this time the promising, Republican-sponsored “big government” Reconstruction program established to aid African people in the transition from slavery to living in a “free” society had failed. And, its failure was largely due to the betrayal of Black people by the then in power Republican Party. After the Civil War, reunification of the white North and the white South was affected at the expense of Black people’s freedom. After the election of 1876, Black progress rapidly spiraled downward.
By the end of the 19th Century, Black Americans had been effectively re-sup-pressed into a modified condition of enslavement as peons to the new systems’ super-exploitation of their labor in the former Confederate states. Besides the public humiliation and degradation of being treated unequally on public transportation, in restaurants, in theaters, in public parks and libraries and sports arenas, ad infinitum, an explosion of unspeakable crimes were committed against Black people. Lynchings, burnings at the stake, bombings, castrations, slayings on the roadside and invasions of Black communities by the Ku Klux Klan were commonplace.
Public officials sworn to uphold the law were often among the leaders of these violent acts. This was a period in the Black experience that historians call the “nadir period,” or the low point, the worst of Black suffering. Rosa Parks, given her upbringing and involvement in social issues, had a keen awareness of this sordid history. Such terror surrounded the environment into which she was born and raised.
In the first decade of the 20th Century, Black Americans began their first wavering and persistent steps toward organizing to reclaim lost civil rights, and to demand their God-given rights as a part of the human family. In 1905, the Niagara Movement was founded by the likes of W.E.B. DuBois and William Monroe Trotter. They met with more than two dozen other Black thought leaders in Niagara Falls, Canada. It was here that a resolute declaration was made: “We demand for ourselves every right enjoyed by freeborn Americans. We will take not one jot less than our full manhood rights, and until we get these rights we shall never cease to assail and protest to the ears of America.”
It can be strenuously argued that this formal protest at the dawn of the 20th Century initiated what would later be known as the Civil Rights Movement. Back then, and up until post-World War II, the movement was simply called, “The Negro Question.” Both DuBois and Trotter were Harvard-trained natives of New England, and among the most radical thought leaders in Black America of that day. In 1909, the militant Niagara Movement merged with a progressive collection of whites. Mary White Ovington, a Radcliffe graduate, descendant of abolitionists, and a social worker who lived in a Negro tenement in New York, issued a call to other concerned whites.
This merger of DuBois and Trotter – and other prominent Black leaders such as A.M.E. Bishop Alexander Walters, Mary Church Terrell, and Ida B. Wells – with white progressives gave birth to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the oldest civil rights organization in America. Since its founding in 1909, the NAACP remains an organization largely comprising both Black and white members.
The NAACP won its first major legal battle in 1913—the year of her birth as Rosa Louise McCauley—when the U.S. Supreme Court finally overthrew the “grandfather clause,” one of many racist political tactics used to prevent recently freed African Americans from voting during Reconstruction (1865-1877). Thereafter, the NAACP became a major force in America as the legal arm in the struggle for Black citizenship and rights. For decades, dozens upon dozens of civil rights lawsuits were filed in American courtrooms. These arduous legal struggles finally culminated with Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954. This decision of the Warren Court officially outlawed racial segregation in education and, by implication, all other American institutions.
The “separate but equal” doctrine of the Plessy decision of 1896 was finally undone. For the first time since Reconstruction, an official stance was taken against “white supremacy.” A little over a year later, in July of 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi. Three months later, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was initiated in Alabama. These two major transformative events are what brought the long-evolving Civil Rights Movement to a higher level of national and international consciousness. Since then, America has never been the same.
It is in this context, and making these connections, that we must view Rosa Parks’ historic stance. She came from a rural Alabama family that had always been concerned about the question of social justice. After moving to Montgomery, she became a quiet yet conspicuous advocate for human and civil rights within the faith community, and as a member of the NAACP. Mrs. Parks, by then the wife of Raymond, had already protested segregated seating on buses in 1943, 12 years before that eventful day of December 1, 1955. She became secretary of her NAACP chapter. Mrs. Parks worked with one of the most influential leaders in the Black community, namely E.D. Nixon, head of the NAACP in Montgomery. Mr. Nixon was also a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the most powerful Black labor union ever.
Mr. Nixon was a protégé of A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the labor union. A radical for his time, Mr. Randolph refused to be drafted into World War II, and was once called “the most dangerous Negro in America” by The New York Times. In addition to being affiliated with such advocates for Democratic rights, Mrs. Parks was well trained in social activism. She attended workshops at the Highlander Folk School in middle Tennessee, a project established by Miles Horton, a white progressive. Highlander played a role in training activists in community organization strategies and tactics for social struggle. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also attended Highlander with Mrs. Parks.
This information is meant to dispel the popular myth that Mrs. Parks was an innocent, unknowing and apolitical Black woman who refused to give up her seat to a white man simply because her feet hurt. This myth fits well with white stereotypical assumptions, or self-deception about Black ignorance. One might add that too many unthinking Black people buy into this Aunt Jemima image of themselves. The “tired feets” bit projects the image that Mrs. Parks was one “who knew not Joseph” – that is to say, was not conscious of the history and condition of her people, or that she was part of an oppressed nationality. The “feets” bit further suggests that she was not a conscious resister, and was unaware of “white supremacy” and American hypocrisy.
The overriding strength of Mrs. Parks’ character was that she was God-centered, a practicing Christian, armed with a powerful moral sensibility. She knew that she was right to resist the evils of white supremacy, and held a deep conviction that a higher power was with her, just as the anonymous Negro spirituals had taught her. Her humility, boundless courage and persistence were profoundly shaped by a faith that led her to believe in “the evidence of things unseen,” that is, to see not with her eyes, but with her belief. With the God she believed in at the center of her life, then, she may have asked, “Of whom shall I be afraid?” It is clear as crystal to some of us that people are more than flesh and bone. They are made of something else. And that something else is a source of spiritual power.
Rosa Parks was like many Black people nurtured in the matrix of white supremacy mythology, and yet aware of its false promises and waiting for the right time to boldly challenge racism before the eyes of the world. This is what she did. And the whole of America ought to be thankful for her deed. This, then, is what makes Rosa Parks an icon, or if you will, the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” as we know it. Of all of the great women in what Frederick Douglass termed “the struggle,” she, as much as any of them, deserves the mantle as an occasion in the prophetic tradition. The incredible combination of courage, conviction, patience, persistence, and a quiet, compelling dignity welled up in her to affect us and the world.
Mahmoud El-Kati is a historian, opinion writer, and lecturer at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN. This feature originally appeared in the second semester edition of THE BLACK COLLEGIAN Magazine, published by IMDiversity, Inc.