The Justice League - Rosa Parks

The Justice League series of articles charts the stories of justice seekers, martyrs and activists from all over the world. They were originally authored and published between August - December 2014.

December 1, 1955

Rosa Parks is sitting exactly where she’s meant to be sitting on the bus.

A city ordinance in Montgomery, Alabama, where Rosa lives and works, requires segregation of public transportation. For this reason there is an area at the front of the bus reserved exclusively for white people. But Rosa is not in that area, she is sitting directly behind in the very first row of seats she’s allowed to occupy. Rosa, you see, is not one to rock the boat (or indeed the bus). In fact Rosa is probably minding her own business when a couple of extra white passengers board the bus. 

And this is where history noisily asserts itself with the insistent hydraulic hiss of the bus doors closing. 

Because another part of the city ordinance gives Rosa's driver the power to reassign seats if white people are left standing and on this particular day the whites only section is full. Full to bursting with happy, flustered, chit-chatting white people, unaware that they are unwittingly about to take part in a defining moment in civil rights history. The bus driver decides to expand the designated area back a few seats so that his new passengers can take a load off and Rosa (along with three other black people) is asked to move. She is informed she is no longer welcome in the middle of the bus. The other three do as they're told with a minimum of fuss. Rosa, on the other hand, stays exactly where she is. Rosa is tired. 

"I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day.... No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in."

And there we have it, folks, crunch time, Parks o’clock, the moment the rubber meets the road and it becomes apocalypse now for public segregation in Montgomery. Rosa is arrested and forcibly ejected from the bus, a young reverend called Martin Luther King finds out about her plight and makes a speech and the very next day, all across Montgomery, black people refuse to ride the bus. The boycott persists for 381 days until the ordinance is finally repealed following a Supreme Court ruling. 

The civil rights movement scores an amazing victory and gains another icon to rally around in the passive, gently smiling form of Rosa Parks. Everyone high fives each other and goes home safe in the knowledge that all it takes to change the world is for one brave person to do what’s right. Case closed. Job’s a good ‘un.

Except it didn’t happen that way.

It’s a modern day myth, a fabrication, an easy moral message wrapped up with a tidy bow. Rosa Parks was not the first black woman to refuse to vacate her seat. She wasn’t even the second. Or the third. She knew exactly what she was doing when she looked bus driver James Blake dead in the eyes and declined to acquiesce. She wasn’t tired, she was fierce and opinionated and steadfast. The real Rosa Parks was no victim of circumstances or unwitting figurehead - she was a politically aware dynamo of campaigning awesomeness. 

Case in point, in March of 1955 a fifteen year old school girl called Claudette Calvin had refused to move seats in very similar circumstances. She too was arrested, dragged off the bus (kicking and screaming and using precisely the kind of language that Rosa wouldn’t nine months later) and prosecuted on trumped up charges. E.D. Nixon, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), had even met with Claudette to see whether she might make an ideal plaintiff in an appeal challenging the segregation laws as unconstitutional. Nixon ultimately decided against using Claudette when she announced she was pregnant, not something Montgomery’s church-going population would rally around in the 1950s.

But knowing about Claudette explains something fundamental about the Rosa myth. In the idealised version everything runs like clockwork - Rosa Parks gets off the bus and all black America gets off the bus with her. Martin Luther King’s speech, the boycott, the appeal brought to the highest court in the land - it all flows together, a natural consequence of one woman making a stand for what’s right. The truth is that the mechanisms had been painstakingly put into place in advance - lines of communication established, lawyers prepared and briefed, car pools arranged to cope with workers participating in the boycott, even King had to be persuaded to speak. The NAACP had been ready since Claudette Calvin, they just needed a new woman to stand up (or technically remain seated) and kick it all into gear. 

Oh, and one more thing, the real Rosa Parks was a member of the NAACP, in fact she was E.D. Nixon’s secretary. She knew about it all - Claudette Calvin, the plan to take an appeal to the Supreme Court, the lawyers, the boycott, EVERYTHING. What she did was doubtless a spontaneous act. She couldn’t have known she’d be challenged on that particular day by that particular driver. But when she was, when that fateful moment arrived, she knew precisely what she was doing - lighting the blue touch paper on some fairly spectacular justice fireworks.

The myth of Rosa Parks tells us one person can unwittingly change the world. The reality tells us that it is much harder and that it requires a concerted effort from a vast network of clever and dedicated people, that it takes vision and sweat and cooperation on an unprecedented scale. I don’t know about you but I find that far more inspiring.

Rosa Parks is a hero. 

Just not the hero you thought she was.