Rosa Parks was not the meek seamstress that she is often portrayed to be. And her role in the black freedom struggle far surpassed the courageous stand she made on a Montgomery bus on December 1, 1955. One of the guiding issues of Rosa Parks’ life was justice, and she spent a lifetime challenging the multiple injustices of the law: used to criminalize black life, support segregation, break black protest, and maintain white brutality against black people. Even her refusal to give up her seat on the bus was in part a challenge to a system that did not value black life or black rights, coming on the heels of the acquittal of the two men who had lynched Emmett Till.
Yet this has not been how the story of Rosa Parks has been taught. The Rosa Parks that most people learn about and think they know is a quiet and passive woman who was simply tired on a bus one day. Rosa Parks is too often trapped on the bus, relegated to the distant past, reduced to a single moment of courage rather than her “life history of being rebellious,” as she herself put it. Yet, criminal justice was a key through-line in her six decades of political work: from her work alongside her husband Raymond on the Scottsboro case in the 1930s; to her decade of NAACP work before the boycott attempting to find justice for black women who had been raped, provide support for wrongfully-accused black men, and document white brutality against black people. On December 1, 1955, when bus driver James Blake ordered her to move from her seat, she thought about Emmett Till and feeling “pushed as far as she could be pushed” refused. Her act sparked a yearlong bus boycott–and 89 community leaders including Parks were arrested for their roles in it. Eight months after the boycott’s successful end, the Parks, who had lost their jobs during the boycott and still could not find work, moved to Detroit. There she spent the next half century challenging the racism of the North, in schools, housing, jobs and particularly criminal justice –protesting police brutality, joining various prisoner defense committees, and continuing to challenge the mistreatment of black people under the law.
It is time to move Rosa Parks beyond the elementary school curriculum. Drawn from The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks and various archival sources including Rosa Parks’ newly-opened papers at the Library of Congress, this project traces the expanse of Rosa Parks’ political work and commitments and the breadth of the Black struggle for justice across the 20th century. At a moment when many commentators seek to draw a bright line between the good old civil rights movement and new movements for justice today, this fuller history of Rosa Parks shows how dangerous such distinctions are, revealing important continuities between movements then and now and how much her experiences and insights offer us today.
This website is the product of the creative collaboration of Say Burgin, Jessica Murray, and Jeanne Theoharis and supported by the Mellon Seminar for Public Engagement and Collaborative Research at the Center for the Humanities, CUNY Graduate Center.