Doing history is often a process of digging beneath the surface, of uncovering stories, people and events that have been hidden from view to give a better understanding of the past. It also often involves challenging simplistic interpretations that categorize historical events into neat categories and periods. A prime example of this is the Civil Rights movement, which is currently the focus of my third-year module, The Quest for Equality: Civil Rights in the USA, 1930-70.
I was fortunate to be able to attend a talk at UCL on this subject by a leading scholar on the black freedom struggle in the 20th century Professor Jeanne Theoharis of Brooklyn College, CUNY. In this talk, she explored the life of one of the most important and iconic figures of the Civil Rights movement, Rosa Parks. Her refusal to comply with the law requiring black passengers to sit at the back of the bus on December 1st of 1955, prompted the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the key moments in the Civil Rights movement. The boycott lasted 381 days, and was significant for a number of reasons. It propelled a 26-year old Martin Luther King Jr into a leadership role that would become central to the movement. It also highlighted the commitment and perseverance of ordinary African Americans in challenging segregation in the face of bitter white resistance. Blacks of all classes worked together to organise a car pooling system to circumvent the boycott, and endured a fierce backlash that involved people like Parks and her husband losing their jobs. The resulting Browder vs Wade (1956) decision, which secured the desegregation of public buses in Alabama, demonstrated to all African Americans around the country what was possible with organisation, courage and commitment. Rosa Parks, the 42-year-old woman who refused to budge, became one of the symbols of the movement.
Professor Theoharis argued that this iconic moment in the Civil Rights movement hides as much as it shows about Parks, and argued that this was one instant in a lifetime of activism hidden from view. Often portrayed as ‘the little old lady on the bus’ who spontaneously decided ‘enough is enough’, Parks had already refused to give up her seat on a previous occasion. She had actually been politically ‘active’ from a very early age, and relied on her experience of activism when she refused to vacate the seat on the bus. Theoharis told of the influence of Rosa’s grandfather, a Garveyite that guarded his family’s home from white violence with a shotgun and a six-year old Rosa by his side; she married Raymond Parks in 1932, a NAACP member active in the defence of the Scottsboro Boys; she joined the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and worked on numerous cases during the 1940s concerned with violence against black men and women, as well as voting rights. Parks’ work did not end with the boycott, she moved to Detroit in 1957 and was present at the March on Washington in 1963 (although controversially none of the female black activists were allowed to address the crowd), and she was also at the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 alongside Martin Luther King Jr; she was an admirer of Malcolm X and became involved with the Black Power movement in the late 1960s; Parks was also described as an internationalist as she campaigned against apartheid in South Africa; she also received the highest institutional honours after her death in 2005 by becoming the first civilian, and first black woman (second African American) to lie in state at the rotunda in Washington, D.C. Professor Theoharis was exploring themes from her book The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks (Beacon Press, 2013), and drawing attention to the way popular histories and collective memory tend to confine Parks to a very limited role in the history of the black freedom struggle. As her book reveals, while her role in the 1955 boycott was pivotal, her legacy, life and story can be used to demonstrate the wider struggles of many other African Americans beyond the limits of the ‘the Civil Rights movement’ – a label which draws the mind to a specific period and conjures a few key figures. As Parks’ life shows, many African American men and women throughout the twentieth century devoted their lives to campaigning for civil rights, enduring a myriad of hardships, and employed various measures to fight against racial discrimination.