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Opinion | The Real Rosa Parks Story Is Better Than the Fairy Tale

Dispirited by the lack of change and what she called the “complacency” of many peers, she reformed the NAACP Youth Council in 1954 and urged her young charges to take greater stands against segregation. When 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in March 1955, many Black Montgomerians were outraged by Mrs. Colvin’s arrest, but some came to decide that the teenager was too feisty and emotional, and not the right test case. Mrs. Parks encouraged the young woman’s membership in the Youth Council and was the only adult leader, according to Ms. Colvin, to stay in touch with her the summer after her arrest. Mrs. Parks put her hope in the spirit and militancy of young people.

That evening on the bus, Mrs. Parks challenged the police officers arresting her: “Why do you push us around?” There are no photos from the arrest — no sense this would be a history-changing moment. But networks that had been built over years sprang into action late that night when Mrs. Parks decided to pursue her legal case and called Fred Gray, a young lawyer and fellow NAACP member, to represent her. Mr. Gray called the head of the Women’s Political Council, Jo Ann Robinson, who decided to call for a one-day boycott on Monday, the day Mrs. Parks would be arraigned in court.

Braving danger, Ms. Robinson left her home in the middle of the night to run off 50,000 leaflets with the help of a colleague and two trusted students. In the early-morning hours, the women of the W.P.C. fanned out across the city, leaving the leaflets in churches, barbershops and schools. Mr. Nixon began calling the more political ministers to get them on board. Buoyed by the boycott’s success that first day, the community decided to continue. The boycott succeeded in part because the Black community organized a massive car pool system, setting up some 40 pickup stations across town, serving about 30,000 riders a day, and in part because of a federal legal case challenging Montgomery’s bus segregation that Mr. Gray filed in February with courageous teenagers, Ms. Colvin and Mary Louise Smith, serving as two of the four plaintiffs.

The boycott seriously disrupted city life and bus company revenues. Police harassed the car pools mercilessly, giving out hundreds of tickets — and then, when that didn’t work, the city dredged up an old anti-syndicalism law and indicted 89 boycott leaders. Refusing to be cowed or to wait to be arrested, Mrs. Parks, along with others, presented herself to the police while scores of community members gathered outside. Mug shot No. 7053.

The Rosa Parks fable also erases the tremendous cost of her bus stand and the decade of suffering that ensued for the Parks family. They weren’t well-off. The Parkses lived in the Cleveland Court projects, Mrs. Parks’s husband, Raymond, working as a barber at Maxwell Air Force Base and Mrs. Parks spending her days in a stuffy back room at Montgomery Fair department store altering white men’s suits. Five weeks after her bus stand, she lost her job; then Raymond lost his. Receiving regular death threats, they never found steady work in Montgomery again. Eight months after the boycott’s successful end, the Parks family was forced to leave Montgomery for Detroit, where her brother and cousins lived. They continued to struggle to find work, and she was hospitalized to treat ulcers in 1959, which led to a bill she couldn’t pay. It was not until 1966, 11 years after her bus arrest, after she was hired to work in U.S. Representative John Conyers’s new Detroit office, that the Parks family registered an income comparable to what they’d made in 1955. (Mrs. Parks had supported Mr. Conyers’s long-shot bid for Congress in 1964.)

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