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Sweatpants & History | Rosa Parks and Her Lifetime of Activism

By Jessica Grey

Today, on what would have been her 104th birthday, Rosa Parks’ contribution to the Civil Rights Movement is honored—in two states: California and Missouri (Ohio and Oregon observe Rosa Parks Day on December 1, the anniversary of her arrest). Only four out of fifty states have proclaimed a day to honor the woman often dubbed “the first lady of civil rights.” Aside from being a missed opportunity to celebrate Rosa Parks, this oversight squanders an occasion to delve into the nuanced and radical history of the Civil Rights Movement, particularly where women are concerned.

Rosa Parks’ Mug Shot 1955. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)

 

An Alabama native, Rosa Parks had been active in social justice advocacy for well over a decade before that December afternoon in Montgomery. Often portrayed as quiet and meek, Ms. Parks was anything but—even in childhood, she was fierce in her conviction that she and everyone in the Black community had a right to speak out and fight back against oppression and white violence. In addition to her roles as youth organizer and field secretary, she was an investigator for the NAACP; she documented the testimonies of—and advocated for—Black girls and women who had suffered racist sexual violence.

Like many other icons, Rosa Parks’ legacy has been mythologized to the point of no longer being accurate. Just as it is not terribly well-known that she had been an activist long before that day on the bus, that act of resistance itself has been subject—intentionally or otherwise—to the telephone game that so often happens in recounting history. The story I remember being told in school went something like this: Rosa Parks, tired after a long day at work as a seamstress doing alterations in a department store, refused to—when asked by a white man—move to the back of the bus. Occasionally, there would be a brief mention of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in conjunction with Rosa Parks, often referencing her refusal to move as the catalyst that spontaneously ignited the boycott, though I heard it discussed more often in connection with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The truths are quite a bit different. For instance: Ms. Parks was prepared as an activist. Beyond her work with the NAACP, she had recently attended a training session at the Highlander Folk School, a center which worked with labor and racial justice advocates. The idea of and planning for a bus boycott had long been underway. Rosa Parks wasn’t even the first person to “take a stand by sitting down.” She was, however, deemed the most suitable plaintiff to challenge bus segregation in the court system. What’s more, her case – though it received a good deal more attention, was not the one that ended bus segregation. After the Supreme Court affirmed the decision made by the District Court in Browder v. Gayle and refused to hear appeals, the boycott was called off and buses were integrated the next day.

First day of integration on Montgomery City Lines, Inc. Rosa Parks and UPI reporter,  Nicholas C. Chriss.

However incompletely Rosa Parks’ courage is celebrated, there is even less mention of the consequences she suffered as a result of her civil disobedience. On top of developing health issues, being subjected to harassment and death threats, being red-baited, and her husband losing his job, she was terminated from her seamstress job at Montgomery Fair and, though she dedicated her time to calling attention to and fundraising for the boycott, the economic fallout ultimately forced her, her husband, and her mother to relocate to Detroit. Despite the havoc wreaked on the lives of the Parks family after her arrest, Ms. Parks continued as an activist, challenging the racism of the often-overlooked Jim Crow North. Eventually, her politics—encompassing the need for self-defense, the celebration of Black history, and the right of all people to self-determination—intersected with the Black Power movement. She supported SNCC, spoke to the Poor People’s Campaign, attended the National Black Political Convention; she even paid a visit to a Black Panther school in Oakland.

Rosa Parks and Kwame Ture (birth name Stokely Carmichael.)

Rosa Parks and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm

While in Detroit, Rosa Parks volunteered on John Conyers’ first congressional campaign in 1964. When Conyers won Michigan’s 13th District seat in the House of Representatives, Ms. Parks was his first congressional hire: she held the position of secretary and receptionist in his Detroit office until she retired in 1988. Though she is credited with doing the day-to-day constituent work – visiting schools and attending community meetings – she kept Conyers apprised of and grounded in the concerns of the community.

Rosa Parks and Congressman John Conyers.

In the 1980s, she co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development and the Rosa Parks Scholarship Foundation. Most of her speaking fees were donated to the latter. She served on Planned Parenthood of America’s board. Beginning in 1979, Rosa Parks was recognized with an array of awards: the NAACP’s Springarn Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, not to mention streets and libraries named in her honor. After her death in 2005, Congress passed a resolution allowing her casket to lay in honor in the Capitol Rotunda—she was the first woman and only the third private citizen to be honored in such a way.

She also holds the distinction of being the first person Congress has commissioned a statue of in one hundred and forty years. Congress commissioned the piece soon after her death in 2005. When it was unveiled in 2013, she became the first Black woman to have her likeness in the National Statuary Hall. Sadly, during the unveiling ceremony, so many of those common misconceptions about Rosa Parks were repeated by lawmakers—some claiming that she was trying to find personal dignity, not change the nation; others retelling the same old, “she was tired” story, and even the President talked about her “singular act.” Even as the statue was being unveiled, the Supreme Court was hearing oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder. The Court’s opinion in that case gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the signing of which Rosa Parks witnessed.

Rosa Parks was a strong, intelligent, and committed activist. Advocating for Civil Rights, for Women’s Rights, for the release of political prisoners, against police brutality, and against the death penalty, Rosa Parks spent her life fighting for her convictions. Inasmuch as her legacy as a radical freedom fighter may be undercut by well-meaning, but off-the-mark tributes like the one at the unveiling of her statue, the rich and vibrant streaks she left on our nation’s history are there, waiting to be discovered, to be honored, and to inspire the freedom fighters of today and tomorrow.

Happy Birthday, Rosa Parks. And thank you.

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