Rosa Parks: RadicalRoundup
tags: civil rights, Jim Crow, segregation, African American history, Rosa Parks, Montgomery Boycott
Jeanne Theoharis is distinguished professor of political science at Brooklyn College of CUNY and the author of the award-winning The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, recently turned into a documentary directed by Johanna Hamilton and Yoruba Richen, now streaming on Peacock.
“Treading the tight-rope of Jim Crow from birth to death . . . [i]t takes a noble soul to plumb this line. There is always a line of some kind — color line hanging rope tightrope. To me it seems that we are puppets on the string in the white man’s hand. They say we must be segregated from them by the color line, yet they pull the strings and we perform to their satisfaction or suffer the consequence if we get out of line.”
Rosa Louise McCauley Parks was born 110 years ago today. Her courageous stand on a Montgomery bus in December 1955 is now American legend, yet her political voice and radicalism are still largely unrecognized. Even many who know she wasn’t a simple seamstress still miscast her as a face of respectability politics — distorting her political beliefs, the suffering she endured, and the radicalism of the civil rights movement.
Rosa Parks was a forty-two-year-old, working-class, seasoned organizer when the Montgomery bus boycott began. She had grown up in a family that supported pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey and started her adult political life alongside her activist husband, Raymond. She joined the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NCAAP) in 1943 and spent the next decade working on a series of anti-rape and anti–legal lynching cases.
Alongside Montgomery activist and Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters leader E. D. Nixon, Parks pushed the city’s NAACP to take more assertive, mass-based action against Jim Crow. Mentored by legendary organizer Ella Baker, she was inspired by the radical democratic visions of Septima Clark and Myles Horton when she attended the Highlander Folk School the summer before her arrest.
Rosa Parks moved to Detroit in 1957 and spent the second half of her life fighting the racial injustice of the North, seeing “not too much difference” between its segregation in schools and housing, job discrimination, and police brutality and that of the South. She embraced both nonviolent direct action and the moral right of self-defense, citing Malcolm X as her personal hero.
To the end of her life, Parks believed that the struggle was not over and much work laid ahead. Yet in the pantheon of Black radicals, she is often omitted, and her political ideas remain largely unrecognized.