It wasn't just Rosa Parks in Montgomery 55 years ago

Posted: Monday, November 29, 2010

Wednesday marks the 55th anniversary of the refusal of Rosa Parks to give up her bus seat to a white man, so let's take a closer look at that event. It was not a spur of the moment thing. It was the culmination of years of work by many people.

Parks was already a civil rights veteran. Her husband, Richard, had been active with her in the NAACP in Montgomery since the 1940s. At the time of the boycott, she was secretary of the local chapter. Six months prior, she spent a couple of weeks at the integrated Highlander Center in Tennessee, where the focus was grassroots organizing and civil rights activism.

In 1953, after blacks in Baton Rouge, La., held a successful five-day boycott to desegregate buses there, activism ramped up in Montgomery. Later that year, Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at Alabama State, helped establish the Women's Political Council to try to get bus policies changed. E.D. Nixon, a community labor leader, and others challenged the city government, and a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. moved to town.

Before Parks made her stand, two other black women had done the same thing earlier that year.

In March 1955, Claudette Colvin, who was 15, refused to give up her seat to a white man and was arrested. In October 1955, Mary Louise Smith, 18, was arrested for also refusing. But the NAACP deemed the girls too young, and some said too dark-skinned and poor, to be reliable test cases, so it did not support them.

Parks presented a more mature, light-skinned and middle- class face. On Dec. 1, 1955, when she was arrested, she called Nixon to bail her out. The next day, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, more than 40 other black ministers and a white minister named the Rev. Robert Graetz formed the Montgomery Improvement Association. The boycott began on Dec. 5.

Blacks chose to walk or organized carpools, despite the violent reaction by some whites. Vigilantes harassed drivers and bombed the homes of both King and Nixon.

Local prosecutors were more interested in going after the civil rights activists. King, along with dozens of others, was arrested and convicted of breaking Alabama's anti-boycott laws.

Meanwhile, civil rights lawyers filed a suit challenging the constitutionally of bus segregation, and after about a year in court, they won. On Dec. 20, 1956, the city of Montgomery received a court order banning the policy.

This victory belonged not just to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. It belonged to everyone who was involved in the long struggle for civil rights and everyone who suffered along the way. And it belonged to those who devised and implemented shrewd strategies to confront a seemingly invincible power structure.

Yes, we should praise Rosa Parks on this day. But let's also praise the other strategists and activists that we too often neglect when we mythologize the civil rights movement and reduce it to two people: Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.

They played their parts. But so did a lot of other people.

• Starita Smith is an instructor at the University of North Texas in Denton. She wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.

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