Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Rosa Parks (redux)

While most people appreciated the comments i made in my previous post on Rosa Parks – where i noted that she was a courageous woman who fought for what was right by refusing to give up her seat on that bus, but that she was neither the only nor the first Black woman to do so – some felt that i was drawing some kind of dividing line between “real” and “fake” activists.

Now, while drawing such a line may be appropriate and even at times necessary, that was certainly not my intention (nor how most of you understood my post). Rosa Parks was a “real” activist, and as i said she played a positive and important role in recent history. There was nothing easy or cavalier or un-radical about her stand. But in order to do justice to all the unsung heroes of the Black Liberation Movement it is important to remember he other women, those who were pushed aside because they were not deemed “respectable” enough. You can read more about this on today’s excellent Black Feminism blog.

But i do acknowledge that what i posted was less about Rosa Parks the person and more about the context of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Fair enough. So in an attempt to flesh out the record, i am posting the following book review by Grace Lee Boggs. Written five years ago, it gives greater insight into who Rosa Parks was. As for who Grace Lee Boggs is, i’ll just include this quote from my friends at Upping The Anti: a journal of theory and action:

For over 60 years Grace Lee Boggs has been thinking about and working towards making social change. Along with her late husband, the African-American writer and activist Jimmy Boggs (1919-1993), she has been centrally involved in numerous grassroots organizations including the Johnston-Forest Tendency, Correspondence, the National Organization for an American Revolution, the Freedom Now Party and Detroit Summer. She has worked with and provided counsel to hundreds of writers and activists including Malcolm X, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Kwame Nkrumah and Stokely Carmichael.”

Rosa Parks Biography
Grace Lee Boggs, WORT JUNE 26, 2000
Viking/Penguin has just published a new biography of Rosa Parks who has become a symbol of courage for our time and for all time. All over the world she ranks with Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the pantheon of 20th century heroes and sheroes who have expanded our notion of what it means to be a human being as we enter the new millennium.
But in becoming an icon, Parks has also been turned into a shadow of her real self. Few people are aware of her lifetime of struggle prior to and following that fateful day in December 1955 when her refusal to give up her seat on an Alabama bus triggered the 13-month long boycott that launched the modern civil rights movement. They don't know about her behind-the-scenes nitty-gritty work to build the NAACP. They don't realize that she had her own political views. How many people, for example, know that unlike Gandhi and King, she refused to rule out the righteous use of force? Not only did she admire Malcolm X; only a few years ago she flew down to Monroe, North Carolina, for the funeral of Robert Williams, the outspoken advocate of armed self-defense by the black community.
One of its main virtues of this book by a professional historian is that it demolishes the myth that Rosa Parks was just a good-hearted middle-aged seamstress who was simply too tired from working all day to give up her seat. Brinkley, the author of award-winning biographies of Jimmy Carter and Franklin D.Roosevelt and the Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans, has done the research needed to help us appreciate the hard work and the difficult decisions that educated Mrs. Parks politically and empowered her not only to say "No" on December 1, 1955 but to give permission for her "No" to become the basis for a constitutional challenge to Montgomery's bus-segregation ordinance.
For example, "while the NAACP executives made dinner speeches and attended national conferences," Parks, as the local NAACP secretary, "balanced the ledgers, kept the books, and recorded every report of racial discrimination that crossed her desk. She also did field research, traveling from towns like Union Springs to cities like Selma to interview African Americans with legal complaints, including some who had witnessed the murders of blacks by whites in rural areas." In 1945, on a trip to a NAACP leadership-training seminar in Jacksonville, Florida, she met and became good friends with Ella Baker, the legendary womanist who in the 1960s encouraged young civil rights activists to organize the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNICK).
In the spring of 1955 she refused to go along with a petition drawn up by her closest associates for a partial desegregation of Montgomery buses because she thought it "demeaning" to demand less than outright desegregation. Shortly thereafter, over the objections of Raymond Parks, her beloved barber husband, she decided to take two weeks off from her job at the Montgomery Fair Department Store to learn new techniques for activism at the Highlander Folk School. At Highlander she met Septima Clark who had studied with W.E.B.DuBois at Atlanta University. "Some of her great courage and dignity and wisdom may have rubbed off on me," Parks would say later.
As "the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement," Rosa Parks has received countless awards, including the Congressional Medal of Honor. But most people see only the fame and not the enormous risks that she incurred. In 1957, for example, the family was forced to leave Montgomery and move to Detroit because continuing death threats were driving Raymond to "near-suicidal despair" and also because Rosa's celebrity had made the couple unemployable by Montgomery's white business community.
Another too-often ignored reason for the Parks leaving Montgomery was that jealousy was raising its ugly head, springing mainly from the male chauvinism in the black community. Working black women, writes Brinkley, "were the most incensed by the unfair bus system because they were most dependent on it to get to work." Jo Ann Robinson, the forty-eight year old English professor and head of the Women's Political Council, was the one who actually launched the Montgomery Bus boycott by writing the 218 word flyer "asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday," and arranging for it to be mimeographed and distributed before daylight to 3500 homes, schools and churches. But black men and especially black preachers were not used to sharing the spotlight with women.
So, out of envy, male colleagues like E.D. Nixon and Rev. Ralph Abernathy began making Rosa's life miserable by belittling her and her husband. And it wasn't only the men. The female plaintiffs in a concurrent anti-segregation law suit were "angry that everybody was saying 'Rosa this' and 'Rosa that.'" They "felt they deserved the public adulation, the NAACP sponsored trips to New York, the invitations to speak, and the praise from Dr. King as much as she did."
After settling in Detroit Rosa Parks made her living for five years by working ten hours a day in the Stockton Sewing Company, a storefront factory, receiving 74 cents each for power-sewed cotton aprons and skirts - until in 1965 newly-elected Congressman John Conyers Jr. gave her a job in his Detroit office.
One of Rosa's workmates in the factory was Elaine Eason Steele, a 16-year old Cass Tech student who plied her with questions about the movement. Years later, when Rosa had become an aide to Conyers, Elaine was employed in the same building. Since then Elaine Steele has become Rosa's closest friend and colleague, holding at bay well-wishers and reporters, accompanying her on her award-winning trips, and especially helping her to found the Rosa and Raymond Institute for Self-Development whose main purpose is to get young people interested in history by trips retracing the Freedom struggle.
My good friend, Carl Edwards, says that as he was reading this account of Rosa Park's evolving consciousness, he was reminded of Hegel's statement that we "can't get to the Absolute like a shot out of a pistol. It takes the labor, patience and suffering of the negative." We all have a lot to learn from the incredible journey of this quiet, self-effacing radical activist. Let us not freeze her into a single day or a single moment.

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