The commemorations this week of the arrest of Mrs Rosa Parks on 1st December 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, remind us that historians often seem to be obsessed with remembering “great” people or “key” moments in History. For many people Mrs Parks’ action in refusing to give up her seat to a white person in the segregated bus was the spontaneous, spur of the moment action that led to a bus boycott that lasted over a year, projected Dr Martin Luther King into the public domain, and began the modern civil rights movement. Much has been said and written to correct this oversimplification of events – recently Gary Younge spoke at the University during Black History Week on precisely this (and other events) pointing to the wider background that led up to the bus boycott; a useful article in The Nation also adds some perspective to this moment in history.
It is quite clear that Mrs Parks’ actions, and their consequences, have to be set in a much broader context – there had been increasing challenges to segregation in general and on public transport in particular during and after World War II; the Women’s Political Council in Montgomery, led by Jo Ann Robinson, was already calling for change, and once news spread of Mrs Parks’ arrest the WPC and the local NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909 – a reminder that the civil rights movement had origins well before 1955) sprang into action. Initially the protest was not calling for an end to segregation, but simply a demand for better treatment by bus drivers. It was the intransigence of the bus company and local authorities that led to the widening of the campaign, a campaign that lasted for over a year and ended only after the US Supreme Court had intervened.
All of this widens our understanding of the events of 1955 and their place in history. However, this does not detract from the fact that Mrs Parks’ action, planned or otherwise, did lead other people and groups to seize the moment to express the frustration, anger and resistance that had been building up over a considerable period of time and to initiate a protest that somehow captured national and international attention. In that sense Mrs Parks’ action can be said, to use another historical cliché, to be the catalyst to this significant historical moment and it is right that we remember her – but also all the others who contributed before and after.