Rosa Parks, 1913 – 2005


11-04-05, 10:16 am

The death of Rosa Parks has led to many memorials, some genuinely heartfelt, others, from those who oppose affirmative action and other goals of the contemporary civil rights movement, quite hypocritical.

Through the media maze, the voices of Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund and a few others have shown through to put Rosa Parks’ work in historical perspective. But most people continue to hear over and over again the simple story taught in grade schools – a humble woman, a seamstress, got tired of segregation one day in December, 1955 and refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Then, a whole movement sprang up around her like magic, and a hero, Martin Luther King, Jr., who would not use violence against violent enemies, stepped forward to lead the people down the long road to freedom, which was established with the end of segregation, which is also the end of the story. 

But there is another much longer and more important history that is essential in understanding Rosa Parks. First, there was the Scottsboro Case in 1931, a case where nine young African American laborers were accused of 'raping' two white women. 

Although the NAACP didn't take 'rape cases' at the time, which were often about an after-the-fact rationale for lynching, the International Labor Defense (ILD), largely organized by the Communist Party, USA as a defense organization for workers, did, and led the way in making the Scottsboro Case, thanks to the international Communist movement, the center of a worldwide movement with demonstrations from London and Berlin to Shanghai in support of the Scottsboro political prisoners. These demonstrations for the first time brought the oppression of African Americans to a global audience. 

In 1932, Rosa Parks became involved in the Scottsboro case when she married a Montgomery, Alabama barber, Raymond Parks, who through the NAACP (which had involved itself in the case in response to the ILD's militancy) was already an activist in the Scottsboro defense campaign. The ILD and a radicalized NAACP, although never close friends, worked together in the 1930s in an anti-lynching movement which sought to enact a federal anti-lynching law.

Also in 1932, southern white radicals had founded the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, focusing positively on the culture of the South and seeking to educate and ally southerners (at first primarily southern whites) with the labor movement, particularly with left labor, as it joined the CIO's organizing drives and provided strike support and education after 1937. There were many influences on the Folk School itself, from that of the cooperative learning communities of Denmark and other Scandinavian countries, to the progressive education theories in the United States of philosopher John Dewey. The school was, in essence, a product of the interaction of ideas rooted in 19th and early 20th century European socialism and American populism and progressivism.

Through its extensive involvement with left labor, Highlander also became a center for integrated training and education programs, which made it from the late 1930s on a target for rightwing vilification as a 'Communist front' and a victim of terrorist, racist and anti-Communist threats and sporadic violence. Highlander, although it was forced to relocate decades later because of the repression, still stands and still contributes today to the southern struggle for social justice.

In 1943, Rosa Parks became both a volunteer secretary to E.D. Nixon, president of the local NAACP chapter, and leader of the NAACP's local youth council. Nixon was also leader of the state chapter of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (the most influential trade union representing African American employees). 

Although the postwar era brought with it repression and reaction, Rosa Parks and her husband Raymond were community activists involved in pioneering campaigns for voter rights and against the dehumanizing system of segregation. Rosa Parks also worked as a seamstress for Virginia Durr, a white progressive activist who with her husband, Clifford Durr, a former Federal Communications Commissioner under Franklin Roosevelt, had been leaders in Alabama of the anti-racist Southern Conference for Human Welfare. In 1948, Virginia Durr had also been a leader of the Progressive Party, which nominated former Vice President Henry A. Wallace on a program to expand the New Deal, end the cold war before it became World War III, and to do away with segregation and all forms of institutional and ideological racism.  Although the Durrs and many other Progressive Party and broad-left activists had become  'invisible' in the national media, and were sometimes demonized as 'Communist dupes' when they involved themselves in public affairs, they remained active, as did CPUSA members who, with much of the party's national leadership imprisoned, faced a higher level of repression and attempted political isolation..

In 1955, the Durrs helped to sponsor Rosa Parks’ participation in an integrated civil rights workshop directed by the Highlander Folk School, which had shifted its energies toward anti-segregation and civil rights campaigns, after the CIO abandoned its southern organizing drive in 1948 and in effect moved to the right, purging unions of Communist and left activists, and expelling in 1949-1950 a group of unions in which Communists and left activists constituted the leadership.

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus, she had with her husband already been part of many struggles that included the Scottsboro defense, the campaign against lynching, and the struggle for voter and citizenship rights for 23 years.

Rosa Parks, E.D. Nixon and other activists, particularly those in the Montgomery Women's Political Council, then led the African American community in a 381-day boycott of the segregated bus system which was in effect a mass strike against segregation. In the aftermath of that victory, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, with boycott spokesman and leader Martin Luther King at its head, was established.

In spite of savage and relentless red-baiting by segregationists and racists, Martin Luther King and other SCLC leaders worked with and through the Highlander Folk School, whose relationships with African American and left labor activists, not only in the South but also nationally, made it a central source of support for the southern civil rights movement.

In no way should this emphasis on the Highlander School be seen as diminishing King's leadership. His unparalleled courage and eloquence gave both hope and a voice to masses of people, whose organized struggle in effect made his vision of social justice and equality more than a dream.

As the SCLC took shape, Highlander established 'citizenship schools' in the South, which historians see as a major recruiting and organizing center for the civil rights movement among African Americans. The schools sought to mobilize the poorest of African Americans, many of whom were functionally illiterate, and provide them with both a basic education and a cause in the civil rights struggle.

Rosa Parks also didn't fade from the scene after the bus incident and boycott. She remained an activist for the rest of her long and distinguished life, and in her later years established the Raymond and Rosa Parks Institute for Self-Development, which sought to provide aid to impoverished African American youth and worked for the rights of children. 

While bits and pieces of this history are being presented today in the mass media, they are both fragmented and filtered. Rosa Parks’ autobiography, Rosa Parks: My Story, written with Jim Haskins, in a straightforward and gentle way challenges the media's attempt to grant her one disconnected moment in American history. Myles Horton, the principal founder and most important leader of Highlander, has also written an autobiography, The Long Haul, which is very much worth reading. There is also a good history of the Highlander Folk School by John M. Glen, No Ordinary School, which places it within the tradition of a broad left commitment to organization and political education.

For those readers with children, the distinguished African American poet (and former colleague of mine at Livingston College in the 1970s), Nikki Giovanni, with the assistance of illustrator Bryan Collier, has written Rosa, a book for children that seeks to broaden the story that they learn in school. 

Rosa Parks fought most of her life against those who sought to put her and keep her in her place. Challenging and defeating the myths being created  around her today is to continue her life and work.

--Norman Markowitz is a contributing editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at