By Lacey Williams, Youth Programs Manager
Fifty-seven years ago this week, something remarkable was stirring in Montgomery, Alabama. A seamstress named Rosa Parks would change the course of history by refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus in the deep South. Her act would set in motion a pivotal win for the Civil Rights Movement, would launch an iconic figure in Martin Luther King, Jr, and would be a source for the one of the most widely known, yet mostly misunderstood, stories that we tell about social change.
There is a lot we can glean from the myth of Rosa Parks and more still that we can learn from the truth of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
As a child, I once imagined her as this old, hobbled figure who was very, very tired, so tired in fact that she brazenly sat in the front of bus and refused to move.
I had imagined that Ms. Parks was the only person who stood up to injustice on the buses in Montgomery, that she had acted on impulse and that the bus boycott took a week to be completed.
The last vision I had from this story was of a young Martin Luther King, Jr., regally rising and taking up the mantle of change and fearlessly ending, almost single handedly, segregation in Montgomery.
As a child, I was in awe of the courage and perfectness of Saint Rosa and Saint Martin. Those were people I could aspire to be, but never really believed I could. The myth gives us larger than life heroes, who are infallible, who make haste of social change, who act out of impulse. I didn’t see myself in the story.
The reality of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is a story about ordinary people rising to the challenge of doing something that seemed insurmountable.
Rosa Parks wasn’t the first. Claudette Colvin, Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald and Mary Louise Smith refused to give up their seats prior to Rosa Parks. Their cases would make up Browder v. Gayle, the desegregation case decided by the Supreme Court in 1956.
Not just tired. In interviews later in life, Rosa Parks said that the only tired she was “was tired of giving in.” To suggest Rosa Parks was just tired negates the reality of what living in a Jim Crow south might be like for an oppressed person. It strips Rosa Parks of her context.
It wasn’t planned, but they were prepared. Jo Ann Gibson Robinson wrote a letter to the mayor of Montgomery in 1954 warning of a bus boycott after the Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation in education. By 1955, the Women’s Political Council of the Montgomery NAACP had plans for such a boycott. Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and other members of the Montgomery NAACP were trained in civil disobedience and organizing at Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, TN earlier that year as part of a larger, coordinated strategy for challenging segregation in the South. Rosa Parks was politically involved with the NAACP. Though Rosa Parks’ decision not to give up her seat wasn’t planned, she was steadied by her training and the community was prepared to support her case and the resulting boycott.
The boycott’s success rested on a cast of ordinary heroes rather than any single individual. True, Martin Luther King was selected to lead the boycott, but he was very hesitant to step up, citing his young children and family. There were also many more leaders involved, many of whom have been forgotten.
The boycott had leaders, old and young, and mostly behind the scenes. Such folks were Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, who mimeographed 35,000 handbills warning people to stay off the buses in Montgomery the night of Parks’ arrest; ED Nixon, the local NAACP president who encouraged Martin Luther King to lead the boycott; Fred Gray, Ms. Parks’ 25 year old lawyer, who filed Browder v. Gayle; Claudette Colvin, the teenager who first refused to give up her seat and became a plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle; and Bayard Rustin, master strategist, who convinced King to use nonviolence as a tactic.
The movement had allies like Virginia Durr, who organized white women who were against segregation and encouraged Rosa Parks to attend training at Highlander Folk School. Her husband, Clifford Durr, was a lawyer who assisted on cases and helped bail Rosa Parks out of jail. Reverend Robert Graetz was a reverend of an African-American Lutheran church and publicly supported the boycott. And random white women in Montgomery who, perhaps fueled by self interest, played a pivotal role driving domestic workers to and from work each day.
The true heroes of the movement were the faces without names. They were black taxi drivers who dropped their fare rates in order to accommodate boycotters and risked arrest. The community women who provided logistics and infrastructure for all strategy meetings. And most importantly, the boycotters, perhaps the most unsung of them all, who were average African-American workers who sacrificed a great deal by refusing to ride the buses.
It took over a year to reach success. The boycott lasted 381 days. What started out as a demand for better conditions, ended in a demand for complete desegregation. Started December 1, 1955 with Rosa Parks’ galvanizing arrest, the boycott ended on December 20, 1956 with the Supreme Court ruling that bus segregation was unconstitutional.
The lessons from this pivotal event in Civil Rights history are clear. Change does not happen in a vacuum. It takes patience, perseverance, effort, and, often, a long time. Change requires planning, training, and good organizing. And, often, change requires the help of allies.
I think the most important lesson we can learn, if we disengage from the hero worship of Rosa Parks and King, is that we can all be a part of change. Sure, maybe I’m not Martin Luther King, but I could imagine myself as Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, thoughtfully preparing for the right moment, spurred into action and catalyzing a movement from behind the scenes.
And you? Could you be a taxi driver? Could you be a boycotter? We all have a role to play and we are at our best when we are using our skills and talents wisely in the service of social justice.
The reduction of this story to one that is centered around a few heroes acting impulsively is not a coincidence. There is a reason the history books don’t tell you about Jo Ann Robinson or Claudette Colvin. The Montgomery Bus Boycott story, if told completely, is a blueprint for social change. If we can start seeing ourselves in this story, then maybe we will individually be able to realize our power. And if we can realize our power, then we will be strong enough to demand what is ours. And, possibly, change the world.