The Many Myths about Rosa Parks
“The Only Tired I was, was Tired of Giving In”
The general story we’re all taught about Rosa Parks was that she was a meek and mild housewife who refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in 1950s Alabama because she was just tired after a long day at work. She was a simple middle-aged woman trying to get home with no fuss. That’s mostly myth, and it obscures all the work that Mrs. Parks did, as well as over-simplifying the complicated politics of the civil rights movement.
Here’s what happened. Rosa Parks was a seamstress at a downtown Montgomery department store. On her way home on December 1, 1955, she sat in the first row of the black section of a public bus.
A white man got on the bus at a later stop. Mrs. Parks and the other people in the first black row were asked to move and to stand in the black section. She refused, and persisted in her refusal after being hectored by the bus driver and other passengers. The police were called, she was arrested and charged with breaking a segregation law.
There had been other such refusals and arrests in Montgomery since 1942, and even some court challenges to the bus segregation laws in other parts of the country. In fact, in 1944 a young Lieutenant Jackie Robinson refused to give up his seat to a white officer on a military bus in Texas and was arrested. A court martial acquitted him. But none of these challenges had seriously weakened segregation laws across the country.
But 1955 was different, and Mrs. Parks was a different protester from the previous ones. Several things had happened that had convinced Mrs. Parks to refuse to move in 1955, and, further, to prompt Montgomery civil rights leaders to mount a bus boycott in the aftermath of Mrs. Parks’s arrest and arraignment.
Let’s start with Mrs. Parks herself. Far from being a simple department store worker and housewife, she had been a committed activist and serious civil rights campaigner since the mid-1940s. She had been active in Montgomery politics and was the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP at the time of her refusal to move from her seat. Her desire to become more forceful in political activism was bolstered by two things that happened in August 1955.
Along with other activists, Mrs. Parks had attended the famous Highlander Folk School in the hills of south-central Tennessee. Highlander had been an education center and think tank for progressive politics since 1932. Many important civil rights leaders of the 1940s and 50s attended Highlander, where they discussed ideas and practical tactics for bringing about social justice. These discussions impressed Mrs. Parks and she returned to Montgomery greatly energized.
August 1955 also saw the brutal beating and murder of the 14-year-old Emmett Till, for allegedly flirting with a white woman in Mississippi. The accused attackers were acquitted, but they told Look magazine that they had indeed beaten and killed Till. They were protected from a re-trial by laws against double-jeopardy. The degree of injustice in this case caused a great of anguish in the African-American and civil rights communities, and calls for action became at once poignant and urgent. To Mrs. Parks and many African-Americans, the shocking nature of this case meant that segregation laws would never change without direct action.
The racial atmosphere across the deep south, therefore, was tense. And Mrs. Parks decided to make her sense of injustice known. Her refusal to move on December 1st, 1955 had been a long time coming.
What happened next provided the groundwork for the myths about Mrs. Parks. The Montgomery chapter of the NAACP elected a young black minister, Martin Luther King, to lead a new “Montgomery Improvement Association,” which would organize a boycott of all city buses by African-Americans starting immediately. Rosa Parks’s arrest was the test case they had been waiting for because, among other things, her personal character was beyond reproach.
With the start of the bus boycott, the two main, and somewhat contradictory, myths began about Mrs. Parks. The first was that she was a plant by the Montgomery NAACP and that her refusal had been deliberately orchestrated. This myth probably came about because of Mrs. Parks’s official position in the NAACP. But it wasn’t true. In fact, the Montgomery NAACP had to scramble to organize the boycott in the wake of Rosa’s arrest.
The second myth, that she was simply a tired seamstress, an accidental champion for civil rights, and a quiet, dignified woman who got swept up in the boycott and wider civil rights movement, was more carefully constructed, however.
The Montgomery NAACP leadership decided early on to use (and enhance) the image of Mrs. Parks as a meek and mild citizen who had respectfully defied an unjust law in the best traditions of civil disobedience. When she asked to speak to the crowd at the first meeting of the bus boycott, she was told by a meeting organizer, “why, you’ve said enough.” The main civil rights leaders in Montgomery, E.D. Nixon and Martin Luther King, kept control of the boycott and decided who could make public statements. Mrs. Parks was never chosen to speak and she became an iconic, but silent, figure during that important event in the overall civil rights movement.
Since she hadn’t given speeches, and since other civil rights leaders took control of the bus boycott, Mrs. Park’s image as a quiet hero started to build. It was more or less solidified in 1963 when she attended the March on Washington. She was brought onto the stage at the Lincoln Memorial, introduced to the crowd, but was not given an opportunity to speak.
Her original protest caused had her great suffering, however. She and her husband lost their jobs, received death threats, and more or less had to leave Montgomery 1957 in order to find work.
They moved to Detroit, where she began working immediately on civil rights issues. She helped the young John Conyers win his first congressional election in 1965, and served as his secretary for years afterwards. She threw herself into civil rights issues in Detroit, especially discrimination in public housing, and worked tirelessly for decades. As the 60s and 70s progressed, she became increasingly active in broader national and international civil rights issues, some of which seemed more radical than those supported by most African-American leaders. She became attracted to the ideas of Malcolm X and always considered him a personal inspiration.
In later years, Mrs. Parks was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a statue of her in a seated pose (as if on a bus) was placed in the Hall of Statuary in the U.S. Capitol. She died in 2005 and her body laid in state in the Capitol’s rotunda.
Our podcast episode dealing with Rosa Parks features an interview with Professor Jeanne Theoharis, the author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Professor Theoharis shows how Parks’s public life was, in a way, taken away from her and controlled by the mainstream civil rights movement. That movement seemed to want women to remain quiet and stoic, on the one hand iconic images of female strength and morality, and on the other hand passive participants in a movement that they felt had to be run by men.
Jeanne Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (2013).
Rosa Parks with James Haskins, Rosa Parks: My Story (1992).
Douglas Brinkley, Rosa Parks: A Life (2005).