We continue to honor not only the significant contributions of Black women, but also their interconnectedness—the persistence of their struggle for freedom. We previously shared the story of Recy Taylor. Today we write about Rosa Parks.
In telling these stories, and the larger story of Black women in the struggle, we will see the intersection of race and gender and class, and also how their lives intertwined in the state of Alabama, as they sought a better world.
Rosa Parks knew Abbeville, Alabama, the hometown of Recy Taylor. Her paternal grandparents had raised their 11 children there and, after her father moved up North looking for work in one of the Great Migrations, she was raised there as well. As she drove into the small Black Belt town, where most Black residents worked as tenant farmers or sharecroppers, the memories flooded back.
Parks found the home of Recy Taylor, introduced herself, and listened as Recy Taylor recounted her harrowing attack. But Lewey Corbitt, a notorious racist known for violence, had heard of Parks (and thus the NAACP’s) presence. Stalking Taylor’s cabin from his police cruiser, he finally busted in. “I don’t want any troublemakers here in Abbeville,” he warned her, according to historian Danielle McGuire, “If you don’t go, I’ll lock you up.”
Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor. A Story of Unequal Justice: The Woman Next Door. . . , ca. 1945. Brochure. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (018.00.00)
But the story had been conveyed, the connection forged. After meeting Recy Taylor, Parks galvanized around her cause back in Montgomery. With the help and support of local Black residents, Parks formed the Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Ms. Recy Taylor, which, over the course of several months and years, got the story picked up by the national Black press, from Pittsburgh to New York. This culminated in a letter-writing campaign to then Alabama Governor Sparks, including some letters sent from overseas, where Black servicemen were fighting fascism abroad and racism at home.
Ultimately, there was no justice for Recy Taylor in Alabama and her rapists were not punished. But the movement for freedom continued. Rosa Parks worked for the NAACP as a field secretary for years, tireless in her efforts against white supremacy throughout the South. She was trained in nonviolence and collective action at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. And, of course, Ms. Parks would go on to refuse to move to the back of one of Montgomery’s segregated buses and spark a mass movement in that city.
She was returning home the first December night of 1955, after having worked her job as a seamstress at the Montgomery Fair department store. As the rush-hour bus filled up, Parks and the two other Black riders adjacent to her were asked to give up their seats for white riders. Parks refused. She was promptly arrested.
Rosa Parks’ booking photo upon her arrest on February 21, 1956. (Public Domain)
About that moment, she remarked in her 1992 autobiography: “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
After the Montgomery Bus Boycott, she would be hailed as the “mother of the movement,” recognized as a national human rights champion, later awarded both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
But as we’ve seen, Rosa Parks was not the tired, innocuous, old woman who was just too spontaneously fatigued to move that December day; she was not an accidental activist. Nor, as it turns out, was she the first to refuse to give up her bus seat. That would be Claudette Colvin, whose story we will share next week.
This post is part of a series written for the Alabama Chanin Journal written by Dr. Ansley Quiros. Ansley is a new contributing writer to the Journal. Get to know her here. Read more from her here. And follow her here.