As we come to the end of February as Black History Month, I am reposting a story about the role of women in the civil rights movement. Just as history often overlooks the contributions of African Americans, so does it overlook the story of women, telling “his-story” as opposed to “her-story.” I hope you will share this story with others, especially young girls and women, remembering the powerful role women have played in creating change in our world.
Why Rosa Parks Really Sat Down On the Bus
Change happens collectively. Of course, we hear the occasional story about one heroic figure responsible for a significant change. Even then, however, these individuals usually have an army of people working with them to make it happen. That knowledge has always been reassuring to me, and reminds me that I don’t have to do it alone.
Unfortunately, the “single individual” stories are usually revised and retold to reflect the idea that one person—one “hero”—can “change the world.” For example, I grew up hearing that one day, Rosa Parks had tired feet, and she sat down at the “front” of the bus and refused to give up her seat. After her arrest, the Montgomery Bus Boycott broke out and led to mass action that developed into the Civil Rights Movement. At least that’s how the story ended up being passed on and became what is now a national myth.
The real story is very different from this popular myth. In truth, Rosa Parks, a seamstress, didn’t spontaneously “revolt” against segregation one day because she was tired. She already was a trained activist at the time of her arrest. A long-time member of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), Parks had attended the Highlander Center in Tennessee, a training center for workers rights and racial equality. Highlander became a major leadership training center within what we now know as the Civil Rights Movement. Septima Clark, founder of the Freedom Schools, was a student at Highlander and later a trainer there. Martin Luther King also attended trainings and strategy sessions there.
A group of women in Alabama, the Woman’s Political Council (WPC) had been working on civil rights since 1949. Jo Ann Robinson, an English teacher at Alabama State College, had been verbally attacked by a bus driver and she decided that something had to change. In late 1950, she became president of the WPC and helped focus the group’s efforts on bus abuses. They had been planning a bus boycott for many months and had even created a draft flyer that needed only the date and time filled in. Strategies for this important action were in place and just waiting for the right moment to be implemented. Like other women before her, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to get up from her seat in the “negro” section of the bus after the white section filled up. By law, she was expected to get up to allow white people to sit down when their section became full.
Refusing to do so was not her first act of civil disobedience. She had also been ejected from the bus a year earlier by the same driver for refusing to pay her fare at the front of the bus and then exit and enter at the back. This practice often led to the drivers leaving the riders who had paid before they could reenter the bus.
When Rosa Parks, a well-respected person within the community was arrested, it provided the perfect opportunity that the WPC had been waiting for. That night, Jo Ann Robinson along with a colleague and two students went into the University of Alabama, under the pretense they were mimeographing tests for students. They ran the mimeograph machine throughout the night, producing 52,500 flyers calling for the bus boycott. Students on bicycles played a key role in helping distribute the flyers. They were dropped off at schools, businesses, beauty parlors, barber shops, churches and factories to be distributed.
When the Black ministers received the flyers, and discovered that the women and others in the community were organizing the support for the boycott, they decided it was time for them, “the leaders”, to follow and take leadership. They decided to bring in a young minister who had recently arrived from Atlanta to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King to be their spokesperson. While the ministers were the public face of what we know today as the Civil Rights Movement, an army of women and men had been working for this change—and training for it—for many years.
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