Rosa Parks Life and Legacy
Ordinary life evokes more extraordinary courage than combat or adventure because both the chances and inevitabilities of life — grief, illness, disappointment, pain, struggle, poverty, loss, terror, heartache: all of them common features of the human condition, and all of them experienced by hundreds of thousands of people every day. (Grayling, 2001, p21)
I found this passage in an AC Grayling book the other day. It had been sitting on the shelf for many years, in a community of other unread books.
I must’ve been craving a little philosophy.
The book was The Meaning Of Things: Applying Philosophy To Life and this section, Courage, opens with the following quote from Plato.
Courage Is A Form Of Salvation.
That’s nice. The idea that salvation and hope come from within, not in a capsule, a certificate, a review, or an endorsement. In a world that is so hard to pin down for meaning sometimes that quote resonates.
While we’re busy gorging on tales of triumph and success we’re in danger of missing the power of everyday courage of those around us; right now and those who have gone before.
And while holding up these stories of recognisable and tangible conquests as benchmarks are we underplaying our own everyday courage? Worse, are we missing real human value in the melee?
There are no biographers for many instances of everyday courage, but one person who embodies this idea for me is Rosa Parks.
Who springs into your mind when you think of everyday courage? A hero, a family member, a friend?
Today she’s a household name, but it seems she is known for the one incident on the bus rather than the lifetime given to fighting racial inequality: before and after that day in Montgomery.
It was a life of full everyday courage and an endless dance with struggle, poverty, terror, disappointment, illness and many of the characteristics listed by AC Grayling above.
His essay also says the following:
There is more danger to one’s hopes, one’s mettle, one’s pride in venturing into the battle of ideas, than in murdering a man who disagrees with you-and that doing so, therefore, takes proportionally more courage. (Grayling, 21)
Lynne Olson gives a compelling account of some of Rosa’s life and works in Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement. Not only Rosa but other names in the movement: Harriet Tubman, Pauli Murray, Ella Baker and over 140 years worth of women from 1830 to 1970.
Stories of everyday courage from people whose names we’ll never remember.
The book puts to bed any truth behind the act of gross historical appropriation that says that Rosa Parks was too tired to get up for the seat on December 1 1955.
Another resource I’ve seen but not read is The Rebellious Life Of Mrs Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis, who chronicles Rosa’s life as an activist and a purposeful agent of change.
She was also an agent of everyday courage.
Rosa’s husband, Raymond Parks, was an active NCAAP member though he’d always discouraged her from joining because it was too dangerous.
As her husband’s hopes of achieving changes through the political system waned and the steady clatter of injustice left him fragile and exhausted, Rosa picked up the gauntlet and in 1943 attended her first NCAAP meeting.
Rosa was the only woman who attended the meeting that night and was immediately elected secretary.
Over the next 13 years, she worked closely with E.D.Nixon, an animated and energetic civil rights leader to fight injustice and empower members of the community, such as youth groups.
She had a front-row view of the endless violence, mysterious killings, disappearances, rape of black women and false accusations.
Despite being jaded by the ongoing violence, Rosa would not submit herself to bow down to white authority.
Twice she was denied the right to vote after being told that she had failed the test. Refusing to accept this as fate she continued to her third test, making sure she made another copy of all of her answers; indicating that she would bring a lawsuit against the voter registration board if she failed again.
Rosa continued her push for equality and representation, and while knowing the genuine threats of violence, she kept on fighting for her ideas of justice and inclusivity.
Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith and Highlander
It was March 2, 1955, when 15-year old Claudette Colvin was hauled violently off a bus for not giving up her seat for a white person and subsequently arrested.
She was fifteen years old and kicked viciously by police officers as she was pulled off the bus.
E.D.Dixon and the official agents for change in Montgomery thought they had the perfect landmark case to take to the supreme court to fight segregation on the buses.
Then the case was dropped.
E.D Nixon claimed she was pregnant at the time, which would ruin her credibility in court. Other’s including Claudette believed she was rejected because she was not part of the middle class, ‘inner circle’.
A few months later, a similar incident occurred with Mary Louise Smith, another teenager arrested after not giving up her seat. Once again, E.D Nixon and the NCAAP peaked early with excitement but decided that Mary Louise was not the right character.
The greater Montgomery community were sorely disappointed that the leadership decided not to proceed with a strike. But, regardless, a fire had been started in the town of Montgomery and Jo Ann Robinson of the WPC made it clear that the next time a case was started the women would be ready to pounce with a strike. There was nothing the male leaders could do to stop it. (Olson, 2001, p131)
Everyday courage is not a ‘winner takes all’ scenario.
The fact that Claudette was the first that year to refuse to give up her seat doesn’t lessen the courage for the other women, and the fact that Rosa’s name is synonymous with the act doesn’t take away from the other women.
Here was an individual, virtually alone, challenging the very citadel of racial bigotry. Any one of us who has ever been arrested on a Southern bus for refusing to move back knows how terrifying this situation is. (Olson, 2001, 108)
Activist Pauli Murray was talking here about Rosa, but the same could be said of any of the women here or standing up to power in the history of all civil rights movements or standing up to any power in a campaign for justice.
Everyday courage isn’t a finite quantity; it gets greater, the more it is shared, and the less we have of it collectively, the worse we are all off — a truly public good.
Rosa, like many others in town, was left bitter and frustrated at the decision to drop the Colvin case and the boycott.
When she was invited to an interracial workshop at Highlander, she didn’t have high expectations.
But after ten days she emerged renewed and refreshed and deeply aligned with the theme of the workshop.
Real social change could only come from grassroots pressure, not from “some government edict or some Messiah. (Olson, p106)
She returned with the energy to fight the cause of racial injustice. In December of the same year, she kicked off the iconic and historical event when she refused to give up her seat, was arrested and taken to prison.
Mary Fair Burks of the Montgomery Women’s Political Council had this to say about the boycott.
A trailblazer is a pioneer in a field of endeavour. Rosa Parks, Jo Ann Robinson and members of the WPC were trailblazers. Martin Luther King, Junior was a torchbearer. (Olson, p131)
The Boycott And The Aftermath
Before the Colvin incident, Rosa had broached the subject of a boycott with friends and peers, but the reality of people staying off the buses was that it was an enormous effort.
There was no financial safety net to support the women and men that needed the bus to take them to work every day but enough was enough.
For the next 381 days the fifty thousand blacks of Montgomery stunned the city, the South and the rest of the country by staying off the buses.(Olson, 116)
No matter the weather -rain, cold, scorching heat -they walked by the thousands, traversing distances that sometimes took hours. (Olson, 117)
All those who participated in the boycott did so at a high cost of convenience, safety and livelihood. An entire city of everyday courage, every day for the 381 days of the strike when, no matter the weather or circumstances, they would stay off the buses until segregation ended.
The sacrifice of the protest was high for many. The act of walking on the street sometimes brought with it a showering of objects and abuse from passing cars.
Just two weeks into the boycott, Rosa lost her job at the department store. A similar fate to many others that had participated and a familiar tale for other activists such as Septima Clark who lost her teaching job for joining the NCAAP.
Not only did she lose her job but a year of death threats followed her throughout the time of the boycott.
In 1957 she took her husband, whose mental and physical health had been affected by the attention and threats they’d received and her ill mother and moved north to Detroit to look for work. Her role in the boycott had left her unemployable in Montgomery.
Even if the historical significance of Rosa’s actions seemed to have been diluted, through others with more substantial PR resources and through time her life was full of moments of extraordinary triumph, in amongst an endless show of everyday courage.
For those trying to create a better world remembering these heroes helps but so does little steps in the right direction; in private or public.
Grayling closes out the essay on Courage with the following words;
above all the courage to create something to mark our individual response to the world, however modest, for even when the courage to do this is unostentatious and private, It can make a crucial difference to the content or the quality of our lives. (Grayling, 22)
Thanks for reading.