From the Huffington Post
When we think of the civil rights movement, we think of Rosa Parks’ courage and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s charisma. We imagine their actions prompting change. But was history really that simple? If not, what really brought about social change?
In his Huffington Post blog post “How Change Happens: The Real Story of Mrs. Rosa Parks & The Montgomery Bus Boycott,” Paul Schmitz reveals what really happened to bring about social change during the civil rights movement:
Rosa Parks’ early years
Rosa Parks was the granddaughter of slaves “whose grandfather taught her to be brave during a wave of racial violence in 1919.” She was quiet but tough and strong-willed. When pushed, she fought back and wouldn’t back down. She married Raymond Parks in 1932. Raymond Parks was a politically active barber who stood up to racism and “was the first man Rosa deemed radical enough to marry.”
Her work with the NAACP
In 1942, E.D. Nixon registered Rosa and Raymond to vote. Nixon “increased the rolls of African American voters from 31 to more than 700.” With reluctance, Rosa Parks went to her first NAACP meeting in 1943 and stayed active with the group for more than a decade. Nixon became the first working class man to run for President of the NAACP. “She considered him the first person beside her family and Raymond who was truly committed to freedom,” says Schmitz.
While in the NAACP, Rosa Parks received leadership training from Ella Baker at events in Jacksonville, Atlanta, and Washington D.C.. Baker encouraged Parks to create an NAACP Youth Council in Montgomery. And Parks did just that. She encouraged teens to challenge segregation and write letters and took on bigger roles in the NAACP, leading marches and voter registration drives.
Parks networked, enlisting help or receiving inspiration from:
- Fred Gray, a young attorney who Parks got involved with civil rights cases
- Clifford and Virginia Durr, white liberals who funded Parks’ attendance at a workshop on civil rights
- Myles Horton, the director of the school where the workshop was held
- Septima Clark, the lead instructor who mentored Parks
- Claudette Colvin, the 15 year-old secretary of her Youth Council who refused to move to the back of the bus and was arrested. Parks and Mrs. Durr raised money for her case.
- Mary Louise Smith, another Youth Council member who refused to move to the back of the bus and was arrested.
The famous bus boycott
On December 1, 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on a bus and was arrested. “The same bus driver, James Blake, had thrown Mrs. Parks off his bus in 1943 for refusing to move. She said ‘I had felt for a long time that if I was ever told to get up so a white person could sit, that I would refuse to do so,'” says Schmitz.
Parks was no accidental activist. She wasn’t simply a tired seamstress who just wanted to rest after a hard day at work. She was a civil rights leader. “She often said that the only thing she was tired of was being segregated and mistreated.”
The difference between Parks and her Youth Council members was that Parks was middle class and a respectable plaintiff to challenge segregation. After much debate, Rosa and Raymond Parks chose to step up to the challenge knowing they’d lose everything.
Mrs. Parks called Fred Gray, who she had had lunch with that day, and asked him to represent her. Mr. Gray called Jo Ann Robinson, a leader of The Women’s Political Council, a group of African American women who had been calling for a bus boycott. Ms. Robinson called E.D. Nixon, and they agreed to call a bus boycott for Monday, the day of Mrs. Parks’ arraignment. Along with another staff member and two students, she used the mimeograph machine overnight at Alabama State College to print more than 15,000 fliers…. This was especially risky since the university was funded by the segregationist state legislature. The Women’s Political Council members met her at dawn and fanned the community with the fliers Friday morning.
Bringing in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
On Friday morning, E.D. Nixon called Rev. Ralph Abernathy of First Baptist Church and asked him to pull the pastors together that night for a meeting. “Rev. Abernathy suggested that he call the newest pastor in town, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church because he had no set alliances, enemies, and had little to lose if things didn’t work out. Dr. King was reluctant at first but eventually agreed with prodding from Rev. Abernathy. About 50 pastors met Friday night with Mrs. Parks and Ms. Robinson. They agreed to support the boycott from their pulpits on Sunday and announce a mass meeting for Monday night,” says Schmitz.
A white pastor Robert Graetz became highly involved but was an outcast among whites in Montgomery. Connected with Parks, Graetz helped get Time Magazine to cover the movement.
A growing movement
On Saturday, Parks hit a setback when only five students attended an NAACP leadership training. Two days later, the empty buses and the streets filled with African American citizens walking to school and work restored her hope.
Dr. King led the movement because businessman Rufus Lewis didn’t want E.D. Nixon to lead it. So he nominated his pastor, Dr. King, arguing he was a neutral choice. “That night, 15,000 people attended a mass meeting, and new 26 year old MIA President Dr. King’s prophetic oratory inspired them to commit to the boycott. Mrs. Parks never spoke or was consulted on strategy. Sexism and a desire to make her sound more sympathetic converted the experienced activist into a ‘tired seamstress,'” says Schmitz.
Dr. King assigned Rev. Bernard Simms and Rufus Lewis to put together a transportation plan that involved 350 cars providing thousands of rides a day for twelve months. A. Phillip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union and dean of America’s civil rights leadership, helped out. Outsider Bayard Rustin mentored Nixon, Robinson, Parks, and King on nonviolent civil disobedience throughout the campaign.
More organizers raised funds for the movement. One fundraising event brought out 16,000 people. “Rosa Parks spoke and got to meet many leaders including Eleanor Roosevelt, who wrote about Mrs. Parks in her weekly newspaper column,” says Schmitz.
The end of segregation
Because Rosa Parks’ husband was active in an effort financed by the Community Party, leaders decided Rosa Parks might be a controversial plaintiff. “So another woman who had refused to move to the back of the bus was chosen to be the lead plaintiff, Aurelia Browder. Along with Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, and one other victim Susan McDonald, the case Browder vs. Gayle went to the Supreme Court, and on November 13, 1956, they struck down segregation. On December 20, 1956, 382 days after Mrs. Parks’ courageous stand, the boycott was over, and the Montgomery buses were integrated,” explains Schmitz.
What Rosa Parks’ story teaches us about social change
Rosa Parks didn’t solely lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dr. King didn’t either. So who did? From Fred Gray to Aurelia Browder, they all led social change. “In our culture, we love stories about lone heroes, the single protagonist who overcomes obstacles to achieve his or her goal makes a better movie. The true story of change, however, is always far more complex. One could add many more names to this story or analyze any other social change effort and find a similar network of leaders. It does not diminish the courage of Mrs. Parks or the prophetic vision of Dr. King to acknowledge that their leadership was part of a larger leadership narrative,” says Schmitz. “But leadership is an action everyone can take, not a position few can hold, and there are ways each of us can step up to work for change we believe in.”
Leadership is a muscle that everyone has, and it only gets stronger with exercise and practice. Everyone has different gifts and can play different roles, but we need to build collective leadership muscle if we want to create change. When the Montgomery police interrogated Claudette Colvin about who was behind the boycott, she responded “Our leaders is just we ourselves.” That should be our call to action.
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