Before Montgomery: The Untaught History of Rosa Parks
Most of us went to school learning how activist Rosa Parks sat down to stand up, but her activism didn’t start here and her story is one that fits into a range of subjects — from history and PSHE to journalism, criminology and the social sciences at large.
Recently in conversation with a friend about how the world wars are taught, we came to the agreement that the inter-war years are treated like they don’t exist. That void of 1919–1938 where race riots could be be found in many British cities, and the infamous Tulsa massacre of 1921. This blog isn’t about the inter-war years but how the story of Rosa Parks is also treated as a figment — in the sense she only became part of the “official history” when she refused to give up her seat to a White person and move to the back of the bus.
Like many of us, at school I learned that Rosa Parks was a pioneer and her actions on the bus that day in 1955 was one of the main catalysts for the Civil Rights Movement. A movement that went on to be remembered through The Male Gaze (but that’s another story). If we are to take how educators in English schools, at least how I was taught, as fact, they would have us believe that the event that lead to the Montgomery Bus Boycott was the first time Rosa Parks showed us the meaning of activism and real equality work.
Ironically, in the October of 2018 (UK Black History Month), series eleven of Doctor Who aired an episode called ‘Rosa’ about civil rights activist Rosa Parks. In my view one of the most visceral betrayals of racism put to screen but it also shows a side to Parks I didn’t learn at school. It doesn’t portray her as a saintly woman who became an activist on a whim, but orates that she always had an activist spirit within her, inspiring others to do so as well.
Whilst prior, the scariest thing the Doctor and co had faced were space monsters, after ‘Rosa’ — I found it was the ugly head of Jim Crow. What’s more, this episode was written by Malorie Blackman (Noughts and Crosses; Pig Heart Boy; Boys Don’t Cry). Rewatching that episode now, in the aftermath of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as today Black people are still being lynched by white racists, frequently police officers, it leaves one thinking.
However, going back into history even years before she sat down, we see that Rosa was always an activist at heart and came from a family that set a precedent of social good, including a value on education. Parks’ mother Leona Edwards was the youngest of three and attended the Payne University in Selma, Alabama but didn’t earn a degree. Becoming a rural schoolteacher, she showed Rosa the value of education and self-respect, things Rosa would carry with her into her community organising and activist work. We know Rosa as the woman that stood up to White supremacy but it has a precedent.
Her grandfather Sylvester Edwards was a supporter of the Jamaican Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey, teaching Rosa not to accept bullies or mistreatment from anyone, depicted in a childhood encounter she had with a White boy named Franklin who threatened to beat her up.
Even as a young girl, she was raised to stand up to injustice and resist acts of violence on her own persons. Knowing how Rosa ended up is not surprising when we know where/what Rosa comes from; and the values instilled in her speak to the person she would become. Also, the person history remembers her as in BHM camapaigns — on both sides of the pond, in Britain and the United States. In 1931, Parks was the victim of an attempted rape by a White man, a neighbour of her employers. This encounter could have been the inspiration for her later work as a rape investigator in the South, specficially of Black women that had been victims of rape and sexual assault by White men.
Into the 1940s and 1950s, Rosa Parks managed E.D. Nixon’s office. He was an activist, and preacher’s son born in Lowndes County, Alabama. During the 1940s he founded the Alabama Voters League and was the president for the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [N .A. A. C. P]. Then in 1954 he became the first Black man to run for public office since the decade(ish) following the Civil War. In 1955, he helped organise the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Parks’ work with Nixon introdcued her to other activists and union organisers, progressives like her. Ten years earlier, in September, 1944, a Black woman and sharecropper Recy Taylor, was walking home from church when she was gang-raped by six White men. Rosa Parks was part of the N .A. A. C. P at the time and was tasked with investigating the case. ‘The Rape of Recy Taylor’ never saw an indictment. Coming from the family she came from tied with her experiences of community organising and activism, it doesn’t take me much to see why Rosa Parks became an advocate for justice and social change.
With the support of poet Langston Hughes, historian and cultural theorist W. E. B DuBois and activist Mary Church Terrell, this case rose to an incredibly high profile.
Joining the N.A.A.C.P in 1943, she became secretary and investigated all numbers of cases, including murder, police brutality, rape and racism. In 1946, the Montgomery chapter defended the paroled Scottsboro survivor Andy Wright and gained him employment. And in 1948, she became the first state secretary for the organisation’s chapter. In 1949, she revived Montgomery’s Youth Council, training the next generation of activists to challenge America’s culture of segregation via its Jim Crow laws.
I will end this post in saying that the way Rosa Parks is taught is as “one of the good ones”, much akin to her contemporary Martin Luther King who was also anti-imperialist and a socialist. She is taught as a quaint woman, saintly, resisted without violence (that she did). But her actions in 1955 are only one part of a wider story of advocacy and resistance, much of it at great personal risk. Being a rape investigator in the South during Jim Crow is no small feat. Rosa Parks wasn’t some quaint woman but one of the giants of activism and her generation. Much akin to other Black American women activists then, including Fanny Lou Hamer, her story is often overshadowed by that of men.
In schools’ bid to decolonise curricula, perhaps they should look into what is already being taught and analyse the missing pieces of those stories. ‘Montgomery’ is only part of the Rosa Parks story. There is plenty to discuss before she sat down and after she was released from prison.
Dying in 2005, she lived a remarkable life. I wonder if young people today would be interested in looking into the ‘Rape of Recy Taylor.’ Not only from a historical angle but also in: criminology, sociology and journalism as well — from the context of interracial rapes in Jim Crow America and how Whiteness as terror against Black people was almost never indicted, to the press coverage of these events and the sociological frames of race politics in those years.
Rosa Parks is more than ‘Montgomery; and she was a seasoned activist, not just a contemporary tool of Black Exceptionalism established into a narrative of “good history” that is comfortable — lest we forget the stories of women both as victims and liberators.
Links of Note
Recy Taylor, Rosa Parks, and the Struggle for Racial Justice
Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old black mother and sharecropper, was walking home from church in Abbeville, Alabama, on Sept…
Explore | Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words | Exhibitions at the Library of Congress | Library of…
Rosa Parks (1913-2005) is best known for her refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a crowded bus in Montgomery…