Mrs. Parks and Black Power

Parks’ visit to the BPP School in Oakland. Photo by Donald Cunningham. Courtesy of Ericka Huggins.

Parks’ visit to the BPP School in Oakland. Photo by Donald Cunningham. Courtesy of Ericka Huggins.

“I”m in favor of any move to show that we are dissatisfied.” —Rosa Parks

Believing that it was “better to protest than to accept injustice,” Rosa Parks stood with young people who were organizing and their attempts to get justice — in the People’s Tribunal and in the emerging Black Power movement in the city and across the country. She had long hated the ways that black rebels were seen as freaks and demonized for their refusal to submit. Like many younger activists, Parks too had grown frustrated by white intransigence toward black demands for equality and justice in schools, housing, jobs and policing. A longtime believer in a black united front, Parks embraced multiple approaches and chafed against white admonitions that black people were demanding too much. “I don’t believe in gradualism or that whatever should be done for the better should take forever to do.” Many of the tenets of Black Power — self defense, demands for more black history in the curriculum, economic justice, internationalism, independent black political power — were not new to her.

Referring to Malcolm X as her personal hero, Rosa Parks and Malcolm X met on a couple of occasions — the first in November 1963 because Malcolm, awed by Parks’s courage, wanted to meet her. Their longest conversation occurred just a week before his assassination when Malcolm X returned to the city to give the keynote at an event by the Afro-American Broadcasting Company, where Rosa Parks also received an award.

Parks was part of a “militant group of blacks” according to the Pittsburgh Courier at the Democratic Party convention in 1968 that refused to endorse any candidate for president. She spoke at the Solidarity Day rally of the Poor People’s movement, attended the 1968 Black Power conference in Philadelphia and the 1972 Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana (where she was photographed by LeRoy Henderson looking at the book tables). She began wearing African-inspired clothing, turned out for numerous Black history lectures, and promoted after-school programs teaching black history and culture. She actively worked for black candidates in the city and across the country and took part in a variety of groups and mobilizations challenging US involvement in Vietnam. In the 1979-1980 school year, she visited the Black Panther Party School in Oakland. Students performed a play they had written in her honor. The school’s director Ericka Huggins recalled Parks’ delight at the visit and how “touched” students and teachers were that Parks “came all the way.”

Video: LeRoy Henderson talks about photographing Rosa Parks at Gary political convention.

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