HAPPY HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MRS. PARKS! We remember Mrs. Rosa Parks this week and celebrate her birthday [February 4th]. Although she passed in 2005, her legacy lives. (Mrs. Parks was the first black woman to have her body lay in the Capitol Rotunda and have a statue placed in the National Statuary Hall of the Capitol). Then House Speaker John Boehner pointed out that her statue was positioned “right in the gaze” of former Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Ha. Ha. Ha. She is one of the most famous veterans of the Civil Rights Movement—remembered for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. [You can move to side notes if you know the “story”. Air quotes because I get to the nitty gritty].
After her arrest, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) organized a bus boycott over the weekend—encouraging Montgomery’s black community to find other transportation that Monday. Knocking on doors, passing out pamphlets, organizing carpools. The boycott proved to be an overwhelming success and the MIA held a meeting that evening at Mt. Zion Church to see if they should continue the boycott until their demands were met (black passengers treated the same as white passengers and black men would also be hired as drivers). A new young preacher who had just moved to Montgomery—some guy named Martin Luther King, Jr.—was asked to speak about an hour before the meeting. After this speech, the boycott continued for over a year until the Supreme Court ruled in Gayle v. Browder that segregation in public transportation is unconstitutional.
[Side note: So many side notes. Side note on the side note. But I’ll try and keep it brief. Try.
Firstly: Mrs. Parks has usually been depicted as an elderly seamstress who was just plain tired at the end of the day. SHE 👏 WAS 👏 42 👏.
Secondly: Yes, she was a seamstress but she was also a long-time BA (bad ass, not bachelor of arts. I added that for my father. Hi, Dad!) activist. So much so that her grandmother feared her little Rosa “would be lynched before she was twenty years old” for defying the norms of the Jim Crow South. Ms. Parks was also a leader in the NAACP, mentored by Ella Baker, and the advisor of their youth chapter. Which leads me to my third (and final. I promise.) point….
Thirdly: Ms. Parks was not the first individual to refuse her seat in Montgomery. That was Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old African-American girl (who was a member of the NAACP youth chapter Ms. Parks advised). Originally, the MIA wanted to organize the boycott around Colvin—but then, found out she “took a tumble” (1950s language for the act of a woman becoming pregnant) and thought a different representative would be better suited to symbolize the African-American community.
Impoverished and targets of violent discrimination (I lied, I have one more point), Rosa Parks and her family fled to Detroit soon after the boycott ended.]
Need more? Historian Jeanne Theoharis has written an amazing biography about the rebellious Mrs. Rosa Parks.
Other good things:
The celebration of Black history month began in 1926 with Carter G. Woodson. The activist and founder told a group of Hampton Institute students, “We are going back to that beautiful history and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements.” Woodson wanted a week in February because both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, individuals who significantly shaped Black history, were born that month. By the 1970s, a week became a month.
The New York Times has published thousands upon thousands of obituaries. In their recent series “Overlooked No More”, they’re highlighting important, yet overlooked, historical figures. This edition highlights prominent Black men and women. Specifically, Elizabeth Jennings—the Rosa Parks before the Rosa Parks. She sued a horse-drawn trolley company for refusing her a spot, making her wait for the black-passenger trolley. She was late for church. She sued. And won. 100 years before Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
For the first time in history, women of color are the most powerful voting block in the United States.