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Rosa Parks Was an Activist Before She Sat Down on the Bus

It sometimes takes years to correct or amend what Photobucket we think we know as "history," especially when simplistic themes become part of the conventional wisdom.  For far too long what we've been taught about the civil rights movement in the United States has been packaged with a focus on Martin Luther King, Jr. (who is certainly also misrepresented), and a few other male leaders.  Often the role of women in the movement is ignored, or trivialized.  

Representations of Rosa Parks as a woman who was tired and sat down on a bus in Montgomery sparking the Montgomery Boycott, led by King, in no way tells us the real story of Rosa Parks, or of the other women who were key in the movement. Her history of activism before the bus incident was, for many reasons, obscured. But no longer.

The good news is that at the same time Rosa Parks is being honored by being immortalized on a Forever stamp from the U.S. Postal Service, an in-depth study of Parks has also been released which will go a long way towards correcting history.  

I teach women's studies, and in our classes we have made sure that we debunk the myth of Rosa Parks, but I am encouraged that now perhaps some of that perspective may become part of the national consciousness.

The U.S. Postal Service 2013 Rosa Parks (Forever®) stamp honors the life of this extraordinary American activist who became an iconic figure in the civil rights movement. In 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks courageously refused to give up her seat on a municipal bus to a white man, defying the discriminatory laws of the time.

The stamp art, a gouache painting on illustration board, is a portrait of Parks emphasizing her quiet strength. A 1950s photograph served as the basis for the stamp portrait.

The response to Parks' arrest was a boycott of the Montgomery bus system that lasted for more than a year and became an international cause célèbre. In 1956, in a related case, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that segregating Montgomery buses was unconstitutional.

Soon after the boycott ended, Parks moved to Detroit, Michigan. She joined the 1963 march on Washington and returned to Alabama in 1965 to join the march from Selma to Montgomery. The many honors Parks received in her lifetime include the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1996), the Spingarn Medal (1979), and the Congressional Gold Medal (1999). Upon her death in 2005, she became the first woman and second African American to lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC.

Artist Thomas Blackshear II created an original painting for the stamp, which was designed by art director Derry Noyes.

The stamp honoring Rosa Parks is one of three stamps in the civil rights set celebrating freedom, courage, and equality being issued in 2013. It is being issued as a Forever® stamp. Forever stamps are always equal in value to the current First-Class Mail one-ounce rate. Issue Date: February 4, 2013

The stamp was unveiled at the Henry Ford Museum as part of the National Day of Courage events on February 4.

On January 29, 2013, an important book, focusing on Rosa Parks was released, which I recommend highly.

The definitive political biography of Rosa Parks examines her six decades of activism, challenging perceptions of her as an accidental actor in the civil rights movementPresenting a corrective to the popular notion of Rosa Parks as the quiet seamstress who, with a single act, birthed the modern civil rights movement, Theoharis provides a revealing window into Parks's politics and years of activism. She shows readers how this civil rights movement radical sought-for more than a half a century-to expose and eradicate the American racial-caste system in jobs, schools, public services, and criminal justice.

The book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis, is not a first venture into the realm of expanding the history of women in the movement by historian Theoharois. Along with her co-editors  Dayo F. Gore  and Komozi Woodard,  in 2009 Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle was published.

One look at the table of contents will probably make that clear. Parks was featured, but not the Parks we have been taught about, and I am glad that Theoharis has turned what was a chapter into a full book.

Democracy Now's Amy Goodman did an in-depth interview with Theoharis about Park's legacy and long years as an activist. The full transcript is available at Democracy Now.

Charles Blow discussed the Theoharis book in his piece for The New York Times; Rosa Parks Revisited.

What will probably surprise many readers about Parks was this statement made by Theoharis on the program in answer to a question from Goodman.

AMY GOODMAN: Who was Rosa Parks' hero?

JEANNE THEOHARIS: Rosa Parks' hero, she describes as Malcolm X. She very much-she loved, she admired, she had-I mean, she had tremendous admiration for King, but she describes Malcolm X as her personal hero. Rosa Parks was a lifelong believer in self-defense. Obviously she gets that from her grandfather. In many ways, Malcolm X reminds her of her grandfather. Malcolm X's willingness to sort of talk about sort of Northern liberalism and Northern hypocrisy, Malcolm X's very early opposition to the war in Vietnam-all of these things are very similar to her sort of political outlook, and therefore, I think, she very much looks to him.

Key in this discussion of Parks was the role of the Women's Political Council, in Montgomery.

The WPC formed in 1946 as a civic organization for African American professional women in the city of Montgomery, Alabama. It was inspired by the Atlanta Neighborhood Union, with which it shared middle-class membership with many of the members active in education; most of WPC's members were educators at Alabama State College or Montgomery's public schools. There were about forty members in attendance at the first organizational meeting. Mary Fair Burks, who was head of Alabama State's English department, was the group's first president.

The Women's Political Council, founded in Montgomery, Alabama, was an organization that was part of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Members included Mary Fair Burks, Jo Ann Robinson, Irene West, Thelma Glass, and Uretta AdairThe WPC's first undertaking was to register to vote, which was difficult because of a literacy test designed to make sure blacks wouldn't be able to vote. All the WPC members eventually passed the test and then they opened up schools to help other blacks fill out registration forms and pass literacy test.

In 1950, Burks decided to step down from the presidency. She remained active in the WPC, but simply did not want to be president any longer. Robinson succeeded Burks as president. It was during Robinson's presidency that the WPC began to focus its efforts on bus abuses. During this time, the WPC began planting the seeds which would eventually lead to a mass movement against segregation on Montgomery's public buses. First, members appeared before the City Commission to report abuses on the buses, to which the commission acted surprised but did nothing.

They were the group that actually called for the boycott.

The night of Parks' arrest, Robinson called the other WPC leaders, and they agreed that this was the right time for a bus boycott. Robinson stayed up all night mimeographing 35,000 handbills at Alabama State College. She called students and arranged to meet them at elementary and high schools in the morning. She then drove to the various schools to drop the handbills off to the students who would distribute them in the schools and ask other students to bring them home to their parents. The handbill asked blacks to boycott the buses the following Monday in support of Parks.

By Friday night, thanks to Robinson's handbills, word of a boycott had spread all over the city. That same night, local ministers and civil rights leaders held a meeting in which Reverend L. Roy Bennett announced that the boycott would be on for Monday and that other ministers should urge their congregations to take part. Some ministers were hesitant to engage in a boycott, and about half left the meeting in frustration. Those who stayed, however, agreed to the boycott and helped spread the word. They also decided to hold a mass meeting Monday night to decide if the boycott should continue. After the success of the Monday boycott, those at the Monday night meeting decided to continue the boycott. They established the Montgomery Improvement Association to focus on the boycott and elected the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. as president. Jo Ann Robinson became a member, served on the group's executive board, and edited their newsletter. In order to protect her position at Alabama State College and to protect her colleagues, Robinson purposely stayed out of the limelight even though she worked diligently with the MIA. Robinson and other WPC members also helped sustain the boycott by providing transportation for boycotters.

So as we remember and honor Rosa Parks, here's hoping we will expand our understanding of all those women and men, some whose names we will never learn who have advanced the cause of civil rights.  

And we should never forget that the battle for our civil and human rights has not ended.  

Cross-posted from Black Kos.

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