Rosa Parks, A Life
February 2013 was not only Black History month in the United States. This year, February 4th also marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of legendary civil rights activist Rosa Parks, the woman who, on her way home from work on December 1, 1955, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Her refusal is often thought of as the event that launched the modern civil rights movement. In his deftly written and concise biography, “Rosa Parks, A Life,” historian Douglas Brinkley debunks the view of Parks as simply a good-hearted but fed-up middle-aged seamstress too tired to give up her seat. Brinkley, a prolific writer on American history, shows that throughout her adult life, Parks was not only a skillful seamstress but also a quiet, dignified and exceptionally persistent proponent of full equality for black Americans. For many years prior to 1955, Parks worked behind the scenes for the Montgomery branch of the NAACP. She was the organization’s informal stenographer and historian, setting out the “search for justice in concise memoranda and meeting notes” (p.70).
Moreover, even her refusal to cede her place that fateful December evening was due to her absent-mindedly boarding the bus driven by James Blake, a particularly abusive white driver whom Parks normally avoided. Her act of civil disobedience, Brinkley argues, was “partly the result of her personal revulsion toward one particular bus driver” (p.59). When Parks looked at Blake, “his hard, thoughtless scowl filled her with pity” (p.107). “Are you going to stand up,” Blake demanded. Parks looked straight at Blake and said “No.” Flustered and not quite sure what to do, Blake retorted, “Well, I’m going to have you arrested,” to which Parks responded, “You may do that” (p.107).
Parks felt “fearless, bold, and serene,” Brinkley writes. “Her majestic use of ‘may’ rather than ‘can’ put Parks on the high ground, establishing her as a protester, not a victim . . . And her formal dignified ‘No,’ uttered on a suppertime bus in the cradle of the Confederacy as darkness fell, ignited the collective ‘no’ of black history in America, a defiance as liberating as John Brown’s on the gallows in Harper’s Ferry” (p.107). The 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott became a crusade, with Parks, “the epitome of a good Christian woman” serving as a “rallying symbol [which] made it far easier for the ministers to boost morale. If a day laborer’s feet got so tired that he thought of riding the bus, all he had to do was mutter ‘Rosa Parks,’ and the temptation would be gone” (p.142).
Parks shared the spotlight during the Montgomery bus boycott with a young pastor from nearby Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King. A year later, the spotlight had passed from Parks to King, “upon whom the nation’s television crews and print reporters descended like a flock of ravenous crows” (p.170). But Parks complemented the role of King and his male cohorts in the bus boycott and civil rights movement. She:
shared their nobility and passion, but added to them the profoundest humility, gentleness, and decency. She may have lacked her cohorts’ vocabulary and worldliness, but part of her lasting appeal is that nobody had a bad word to say about her (p.127).
Parks eventually moved from Montgomery to Detroit, Michigan, which she quickly learned was “not an oasis of tolerance” (p.67). She worked for an upcoming young Congressman, John Conyers, now the senior African-American in the House of Representatives (and, for a while, my parents’ representative in Congress). Conyers found that Parks had an “aura of something akin to majesty without the arrogance” (p.189). He likened Parks to a nun who had no temper and “never raised her voice or betrayed anger in any way” (p.189).
In 1967, Parks witnessed close up and first hand the Detroit riots, the start of a downward spiral in the Motor City which may still not have found the bottom (see my review of two books about Detroit, posted here last year). It sickened Parks, Brinkley writes, to “see Detroit’s image as a model city for race relations shattered on July 23, 1967, when it exploded into what would become eight days of rioting, vandalism, and brutality in one of the most destructive civil disorders in American history” (p.202). While the Montgomery bus boycott had produced its share of frightening moments, Parks had “never witnessed anything remotely like the terror and chaos in Detroit” (p.203).
Parks died in 2005, after publication of Brinkley’s book. In the latter portion of her life, politicians across the country elbowed one another aside to have their photos taken with Parks, thereby demonstrating to constituents their tolerance and freedom from racism. “Everybody wanted to shake Rosa Park’s hand,” Brinkley concludes, “but nobody wanted to delve into her lifetime commitment to political and economic justice for black Americans” (p.226).
Thomas H. Peebles
February 20, 2013