Rosa Parks: A Life of Activism

Photo Credit: Wisconsin Historical Images

Photo Credit: Wisconsin Historical Images

If you depend on mainstream media for information on this extraordinary woman you will be treated to a patriarchal view of her life and accomplishments. If you look up Rosa Parks on The History Channel website, you will read about “Raymond and Rosa” as if her husband takes priority even in an entry devoted to her. The page goes on to describe her contribution to the NAACP in terms of the man she worked with and the important things that man did. It then jumps almost a decade to her arrest that preceded the legendary Montgomery Bus Boycott—again, framed not by Rosa’s involvement but as if she is a passive player being led by E.D. Nixon and later Marin Luther King, Jr. Let me fill you in on Parks’ life outside of the men in it—she was fighting for women’s rights, particularly black women, while MLK Jr was still in high school.

One of the most shameful periods of the history of women’s rights was the US Suffrage Movement. When women fought for the right to vote it was really the right for white women to vote. As white women are now slowly coming to realize, if a right is only guaranteed to white women then it is not progress for feminism, it is progress for white supremacy. While women were granted the right to vote in 1920, poll taxes and literacy tests were implemented to create barriers for many women. Although Parks would have had no trouble passing the literacy test, she was denied her right to vote three times under the claim that she had failed before she received her voting card in 1945. Her persistence is no small thing and her success in insisting that she be allowed to exercise her right to vote was a step forward for women.

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In 1944, Recy Taylor, a Black Woman living in Abbeville, Alabama was gang-raped by white men. It will not surprise anyone familiar with American history that the law failed to do so much as arrest these men. Taylor contacted the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and asked for help getting justice. Rosa Parks travelled to Abbeville to conduct the investigation. Parks had been the branch secretary for the NAACP a year, a job that required her to travel around Alabama and interview victims, including victims of rape. She built a reputation for being easy to talk to and victims were directed to her for advocacy and assistance.

After recording Taylor’s story (and being run out of town by the law for it) Parks and others formed the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs Recy Taylor. This group of activists would later become the Montgomery Improvement Association and organize the bus boycott that would make Rosa Parks a legend. She organized the local community around Taylor’s case and the campaign earned national attention as one of the largest anti-rape efforts. These efforts include petitions and letter writing campaigns to judges, local politicians, and the Governor of Alabama. Despite all this, the group was finally forced to abandon hope for a just outcome for Taylor. Parks and the committee helped relocate Taylor and her family when it became clear they would not be safe in Abbeville.

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Before the Taylor case, Rosa Parks and her husband, Raymond, hosted organizing meetings for a campaign to free a group of men falsely accused and of a vicious rape of a white woman in Scottsboro. The case took twenty years to resolve and the early days were dangerous ones for the organizers. The relationships Parks started to develop during those covert meetings provided her with a network for her anti-rape and civil rights activism later. Her activism and organizing started over a decade before the bus boycott in Montgomery. While she’s best known for the part she played in kicking off the most high profile work of the Civil Rights Movement, there is another movement that owes Parks a debt of gratitude—the Women’s Movement. The Women’s Movement of the 60s and 70s and the current #MeToo climate is built on the anti-rape organizing that Parks did in the 40s. Before there was the YWCA H.O.P.E. Center, one of the earliest battered women’s shelters, and the National Organization of Women (NOW) there was Rosa Parks and the NAACP. Every time we demand that people “Believe Women” we are walking in Parks’ footsteps.

Much of the information for the blog came from Danielle L. McGuire’s book At the Dark End of the Street, a book that should be mandatory reading for all feminists.


Article by Claire Ryder
VERVE Operative USA & Humanitarian Activist

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