Today marks the 100th birthday of Rosa Parks. The late civil rights activist is best known for what happened 42 years later, when she refused to give up her seat to a white person on a public bus in Montgomery, Ala. (seen to the right, as restored in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.). It’s fitting to recognize Parks in the same month we celebrate African-American history and Bold Women’s Day (February 24). We should, however, celebrate with care, lest we limit our attention to what happened on the bus and ignore the rest of her compelling life
History made Parks famous for one solitary act on one solitary day. Yet, by the time she rode that bus on December 1, 1955, Parks had been a civil rights activist for two decades. In an article on CNN.com, Danielle McGuire tells about these years:
In the 1930s, Rosa Parks joined her husband Raymond and others in secret meetings to defend the Scottsboro boys…. In the 1940s, they hosted Voter League meetings, where they encouraged neighbors to register even though it was a dangerous task…. In 1943, she joined the Montgomery NAACP and was elected branch secretary.…It was in this context, in 1944, that Rosa Parks investigated the brutal gang-rape of Recy Taylor, a black woman from Abbeville, Alabama.
Parks took Taylor’s testimony back to Montgomery, where she and other activists organized the “Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor.” They launched what the Chicago Defender called the “strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade.” In 1948, she gave a fiery speech at the state NAACP convention criticizing President Harry Truman’s civil rights initiatives. “No one should feel proud,” she said, “when Negroes every day are being molested.”
The woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus was an accomplished organizer and activist who, on December 1, 1955, got fed up with segregation in her daily commute and decided to resist.
When I feel inspired by what Rosa Parks did on that bus, I’m tempted to wonder, “What could be my moment? When will I become fed up enough to do something that makes a difference?” Yet, I think that’s the wrong lesson to take from Parks’s life. She didn’t wait for the big moment. She involved herself in the larger and slower movements for social change. She made herself available. She went to meetings. She learned and gained experience. She accepted positions of responsibility. And she seized the moments when they arose.
Emma Crossen is director for stewardship and development.