black women

Professor Explains: Rosa Parks Wasn’t Wimpy and Frail; She Also Believed in Self-Defense

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by Dr. Kimberly Brown

1. Although we’ve recently celebrated the day that her refusal and arrest led to the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott in December 1955, she exchanged words with the very same bus driver in a previous incident. Also, she wasn’t in the “wrong” section. The white area was full when she was asked to rise and provide seating for an adult man to whom she had no relation. This blatant disrespect is why the Black community of Montgomery began protesting in demand for the hiring of Black drivers, not necessarily integration. Local legislators refused, so Black folks in Montgomery organized their own car pooling system and walked, for more than a year, rather than subject themselves to belittlement from drivers who they described as having “less than a 12th grade education.”

 

2. She criticized Dr. Martin Luther King (who none of us would know had it not been for her sparking the revolution. He became a household name only after the launch of the boycott). She viewed Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X as more representative of her political interests. She believed in self-defense, just like her grandfather who watched their home each night with a rifle in tow to protect his family from the Ku Klux Klan. Even as a kid she stood up to white bullies without hesitation, holding a brick up to one boy who had threatened her.

 

3. She was MUCH more than that day. She worked as a field secretary and anti-rape investigator for the NAACP more than a decade beforehand. In fact, the boycott was just as much about sexual harassment of Black women as it was about discrimination. ALL bus drivers in Montgomery were white and carried guns, which guaranteed that their common assaults against Black women would go unchecked. They were known to hit and shove female patrons on private parts of their bodies. At times, incidents on buses would end in rape. This makes Mrs. Parks’ work all the more essential. THIS is what tired her spirit, not a long day of sewing as media caricaturizations of her story would have you believe. Furthermore, rather than ending her activism after businesses would no longer hire her in Montgomery, she continued her mission of human rights when she settled in Detroit. She advocated for Black history as a core subject in school curricula, started a scholarship, addressed Poor People’s Campaign meetings, and assisted with the Gary Convention to help solidify a national Black political agenda. She picketed the South African Embassy in a stance against apartheid.

4. People who do not study this topic with professional standards in place always try to create beef between Mrs. Parks and Claudette Colvin, citing Colvin as the actual first person to make a stand on the buses. There is no such thing as the “first Black person to be…” anything related to public transportation and protest. African people have always resisted since we got here and there have been countless incidents related to buses, railroads, etc. See: Plessy v. Ferguson, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, etc. Remember also, resistance takes many forms and often goes without documentation. It is true, however, that the NAACP (see ED Nixon) thought Colvin’s pregnancy as an unmarried youth would jeopardize the image that Black preachers and educators of Montgomery sought to project within their activism. That doesn’t mean Mrs. Parks and Colvin had beef. In fact, Mrs. Parks helped prepare the young Colvin for her testimonies in court. Still, amateur historians will insist that Mrs. Parks did very little related to the Movement and only symbolizes the Boycott because she happened to look the part leadership sought to push. In all factuality, Mrs. Parks remained broke as a consequence of all of the fierce activism she continued after 1955. Institutions refused to hire her. Jet magazine even published an article in 1960 that revealed her financial challenges.

 

5. She wasn’t an old meek woman with gray braids at the time of her arrest. Clear and purposeful, she was a vibrant and cerebral middle-aged activist with hair as black as her heart.