“Such a good job of brain washing was done on the Negro that a militant Negro was almost a freak of nature to them, many times ridiculed by others of his own group.” —Rosa Parks
Raymond became a member of the Montgomery NAACP in 1934, though in time he would grow disillusioned with the organization’s cautiousness and elitism. Raymond attended NAACP meetings and Rosa wanted to accompany him “but he’d always say it was too dangerous. I didn’t want to displease him so I didn’t get right in it then.”
Looking for ways to be more involved — and seeing a picture of a woman classmate in a photo of the Montgomery branch which convinced her women could be part of the branch — Parks went to her first NAACP meeting in 1943 and was elected secretary that very same day. She and militant union activist E.D. Nixon would spend the next decade transforming it into a more activist branch. One of the main issues they focused on was criminal justice. They attempted to get the law to protect black people, to be responsive to white brutality and sexual violence against black people. They also sought to provide legal representation and protection to black people, largely men, from wrongful accusations. Parks and Nixon’s work seeking justice for black victims of white violence and exposing the legal lynchings of black people was dangerous and controversial. “Mrs. Parks will tell you this,” Nixon explained, “her mother said the white folks was going to lynch us, her and me both. Mrs. Parks and I were in the NAACP when other Negroes were afraid to be seen with us.”
They highlighted and sought justice for cases like Recy Taylor and Gertrude Perkins, black women who had been raped by white men. But no justice was forthcoming, and the men who raped Taylor and Perkins faced no punishment. As she and Nixon refashioned the Montgomery NAACP into a more activist chapter, one of Parks’ main duties was to record dozens of cases of violence or unfair treatment against black people, in the hopes of possible redress. She traveled through Alabama in the late 1940s hearing people’s stories and trying to get them to file affidavits to the US Department of Justice. “Rosa will talk to you” became the understanding throughout Black communities in Alabama. This was dangerous, depressing work. “It was more a matter of trying to challenge the powers that be and let it be known that we did not want to wish to continue being treated as second class citizens.” But most of their efforts produced little change: the Department of Justice looked the other way and many black people who talked to Parks were unwilling to put their name on affidavits or testify publicly for fear of reprisals. “It was very difficult to keep going when all our work seemed to be in vain.”
They also supported and found legal representation for men like Jeremiah Reeves. According to Parks, the 16-year-old Reeves, a popular senior at Booker T. Washington High School, had a consensual relationship with a young white woman from the neighborhood who grew fearful of being found out and cried rape. Reeves was arrested, beaten by police, and subsequently confessed after officers taunted him and forced him to sit in an electric chair. Reeves later retracted his admission of guilt and denied ever having had sexual relations under any circumstances with the woman. He was tried and sentenced to death. Appeals and organizing led the Supreme Court in 1954 to throw out his conviction based on biased jury composition. At his new trial in May 1955, even though his defense argued that the new trial was still unfair, the new all-white jury took only thirty-four minutes to restore Reeves’s death sentence. Reeves was executed in 1958, when he turned twenty one.
Parks restarted the NAACP youth branch and put her hopes in the spirit and militancy of young people. Most black Montgomerians didn’t want their kids affiliated with the youth branch for fear of trouble, but she encouraged her small group of teenagers to pursue greater stands against segregation, including a read-in at the downtown library which refused to serve black people.
Related primary source: Letter written by Rosa Parks to ‘friend’ about segregation in Montgomery. Library of Congress, courtesy of Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development.