Rosa Parks helped launch the civil rights movement long before she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama. She did not plan to challenge racial segregation that night, December 1, 1955. But when the opportunity arose, she was more than ready…
Video 1: The Bus
Interact and Learn | Montgomery 1955.
Here are the fingerprints of Rosa Parks:
These fingerprints were taken when Parks was arrested. Several other black women had already been arrested for defying Jim Crow on Montgomery’s buses. What made Parks uniquely suited to serve as a spark for the movement?
On her arrest report, Parks was described as a “cf.” Here is the official report:
What does “cf” stand for and what does it say about the law that it would be included in that report?
Here is a report on the boycott prepared for the federal government:
Does this document support or oppose the boycott? What might its tone tell us about how the federal government responded to the boycott?
Parks was born in Alabama, but her nationality is not listed as “American” on the official police report of her arrest. According to the document, what was her nationality?
What does it say about race and citizenship that Parks was not listed as “American”?
Focus on Today. Jim Crow segregation was made illegal with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but racial segregation continues to divide America. Look at this map of the “racial diversity of the American people in every neighborhood in the entire country” created at the University of Virginia in 2013:
Why is America still so divided by race?
Part of the problem is that economic class also divides America. And African Americans remain disproportionately poor. Many poor people become trapped in a cycle that connects low property values to underfunded schools to poor job prospects and thus back to low property values. Poor neighborhoods have poor schools. Poor schools produce under-skilled people. Under-skilled people can’t find the jobs they need to move to a better neighborhood. And the cycle continues.
In the early 1970s, a group of low-income parents in San Antonio challenged a key pillar of the poverty cycle: the local funding of school districts. Those parents argued that the state of Texas ought to ensure that all schools were funded equally. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court denied their request for equal funding, perpetuating the current system of locally-funded school districts.
The following year, the Supreme Court ruled that suburban school districts were not required to accept students from adjoining inner cities, thus eliminating one way in which activists had tried to end the racial and class-based segregation of American schools. That case focused on Detroit, the city that Rosa Parks made home after she left Montgomery. Detroit remains one of the most segregated cities in America.
Parks helped launch a movement to end segregation. But as American schools and cities make clear, her struggle continues. Here is a powerful story about the resegregation of the schools in Tuscaloosa, Alabama:
Global Connections. Many of the people who participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott drew inspiration from the Indian Independence Movement and the nonviolent civil disobedience of Mahatma Gandhi. The Fellowship of Reconciliation, the same organization that supported Bayard Rustin and Glen Smiley, highlighted the Gandhian dimensions of the bus boycott in a comic strip:
How does the comic explain the link between Gandhi and King? Does the comic focus too much on the impact of King and not enough on other leaders in Montgomery? What are the advantages and disadvantages of focusing on one charismatic figure?
In India, the Hindustan Times called King “the American Gandhi.” But before King learned from Gandhi, Gandhi had learned from the struggles of African Americans. Indeed, for generations many Indian and African American activists had learned from each other’s struggles, crossing the boundaries of nations and social movements.
Experiment in social change. Is your city segregated? By race or class or both? What about your school or workplace? What could you do to break down the boundaries that divide people in your community? Often, the best place to start is with a group of people who are already creating positive change. Could you volunteer with a local community organization that is diverse? Or is there a sports league, a musical venue, or a place of worship that is good at drawing people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds? Maybe you could participate and also help spread word about that organization? Or consider joining an organization fighting racism, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Reflect and Question. Here is a prose poem by Phyllis Koestenbaum:
Young Armless Man in the Barbecue Restaurant
The hostess seats a girl and a young man in a short-sleeve sport shirt with one arm missing below the shoulder. I’m at the next table with my husband and son, Andy’s Barbecue Restaurant, an early evening in July, chewing a boneless rib eye, gulping a dark beer ordered from the cocktail waitress, a nervous woman almost over the hill, whose high heel sandals click back and forth from the bar to the dining room joined to the bar by an open arch. A tall heavy cook in white hat is brushing sauce on the chicken and spareribs rotating slowly on a squeaking spit. Baked potatoes heat on the oven floor. The young man is eating salad with his one hand. He and his girl are on a date. He has a forties’ movie face, early Van Johnson before the motorcycle accident scarred his forehead. He lost the arm recently. Hard as it is, it could be worse. I would even exchange places with him if I could. I want to exchange places with the young armless man in the barbecue restaurant. He would sit at my table and I would sit at his. After dinner I would go in his car and he would go in mine. I would live in his house and work at his job and he would live in my house and do what I do. I would be him dressing and undressing and he would be me dressing and undressing. Our bill comes. My husband leaves the tip on the tray; we take toothpicks and mints and walk through the dark workingman’s bar out to the parking lot still lit by the sky though the streetlights have come on as they do automatically at the same time each night. We drive our son, home for the summer, back to his job at the bookstore. As old Italians and Jews say of sons from five to fifty, he’s a good boy. I have worked on this paragraph for more than two years.
Why does the narrator want to switch places? What do you think the narrator wants to learn? Is this empathy? Can we ever fully switch places with someone? How can we truly get to know people who are different from us? Can we look beyond stereotypes?
To learn why Rosa Parks understood her struggle in global terms, watch Video 2: Human Rights…
Video 2: Human Rights
Focus on Today. As the life of Pauli Murray demonstrates, prejudice comes in many forms. Murray fought against racism, sexism, and discrimination based on sexual orientation. Today, the Human Rights Campaign is America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. The Human Rights Campaign embodies the connections between LGBTQ rights and the larger struggle for human rights.
The intersection of multiple oppressions calls for collaborations between organizations and people committed to a world beyond discrimination. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights works to defend the right to safety, to dignity, to equality, and to self-determination. The Southern Poverty Law Center is dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. What form of discrimination do you find most galling? Who is working to end that kind of discrimination?
Global Connections. Social movements don’t grow in a vacuum. They inspire each other. On December 17, 2010, a twenty-six year-old fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in a small town in Tunisia. A policewoman had demanded a bribe and, when Bouazizi refused, had slapped and insulted him. He took his life in protest. His death sparked a movement against corruption that led to the downfall of Tunisia’s dictator and, eventually, the collapse of other dictators in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world.
Like the arrest of Rosa Parks, the death of Mohamed Bouazizi demonstrates the power of a lone act of courage, but also the way in which movements can spread across national borders. Like the Arab Spring, the civil rights movement was inspired by earlier movements and in turn inspired other struggles for freedom throughout the world. Where in today’s world is nonviolent protest being used to fight for justice? How can you support those struggles?
Interact and Learn | Movements Across Borders. Do revolutions needs passports? How do social movements cross national borders?
In 1940, African American activist, Pauli Murray, was arrested on a segregated bus in Virginia. She was 29 years old. Like Rosa Parks, Murray had not planned to be arrested but had long pondered the power of civil disobedience. Murray designed a remarkable chart comparing the potential for nonviolent civil disobedience in India and among African Americans. What can you learn from the chart about how activists like Murray bridge freedom struggles across the globe?
What strikes you about Murray’s comparisons? What do you think she learned from making the chart? To help you think through the chart, here are a few multiple choice questions:
- Murray listed the population of India, the number of times Gandhi had been arrested, and the amount of money that men, women, and children earned in Indian textile mills. Why might Murray be interested in the population of India?
- In addition to being a minority, African Americans were denied access to many labor unions and, according to Murray, also lacked a well-disciplined movement. Murray helped create that movement, but it took time. Her arrest was not enough to launch the movement she hoped to create.
Why did Rosa Parks succeed where Pauli Murray failed? What is necessary to spark a mass movement? Consider the following timeline of key events in the African American freedom struggle from 1940 to 1955 (click on an event in the timeline, or navigate using the arrows at the left or right).
How might the above timeline (made with Timeline JS) help explain why Rosa Parks succeeded where Pauli Murray failed? What other explanations could you offer?
Perhaps it isn’t right to say that Parks succeeded where Murray failed. Murray’s arrest may not have sparked a movement, but did plant seeds for the future. Murray herself cultivated those seeds. In the early 1940s, she helped form CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, an interracial civil rights organization that launched sit-ins against segregated restaurants, organized the Freedom Rides of 1961, and became a key pillar of the civil rights movement. Murray also served as a civil rights lawyer, penning a key text in the legal assault on Jim Crow.
Murray became an influential figure in the women’s rights movement. She helped found the National Organization of Women and became the first African American woman to become an Episcopal priest. Murray also became an inspiration for the gay rights movement. Her sexual identity had complicated her activism at a time when open prejudice against LGBTQ people existed even within the civil rights movement.
Movements don’t grow in a vacuum. They inspire each other. The arrest of Rosa Parks is more of a turning point than a starting point. Like Rosa Parks, Pauli Murray’s life reveals how the civil rights movement was inspired by earlier movements and in turn inspired other struggles for freedom throughout the world.
Experiment in social change. Create a timeline of your life. Where are the key moments? Where are the turning points in your life? Like people, social movements have turning points. What kind of turning point might spark or transform a social movement in today’s world? Identify a movement with which you sympathize and imagine a turning point that would empower that movement toward success. Can you help make that turning point a reality?
Reflect and Question. Many people are familiar with Robert Frost’s famous poem about the “two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” the poem that ends “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” What are the dangers of taking the less traveled road? When have you chosen to take the less traveled path or to chart a new path of your own?
To learn more about how Rosa Parks took risks to help advance the civil rights movement, watch Video 3: Spadework…
Video 3: Spadework
Focus on Today. On July 17, 2014, a 43-year-old father of six died after being pinned to the ground on a busy street on New York’s Staten Island. On August 5, a 22 year-old man was shot and killed while holding a toy rifle in a Walmart near Dayton, Ohio. On August 9, an 18-year-old teenger was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri. On November 22, a 12-year-old boy was shot and killed in Cleveland, Ohio. All four victims were black. And all four were killed by police officers.
Their deaths, and the deaths of other African American victims of police violence, sparked a nationwide protest movement that has demanded an end to police brutality and to more systemic forms of injustice, such as the massive incarceration of African Americans that has been called the new Jim Crow. The civil rights movement continues.
Interact and Learn | Movements Inspire Movements! Explore the interactive map below to learn more about the interconnectedness of social movements across the globe.
Global Connections. In 1955, the same year that the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, leaders from most of Asia and parts of Africa gathered at Bandung, Indonesia. They discussed the anti-colonial future of the many Afro-Asian countries that had recently emerged from colonial rule or were still fighting to gain freedom.
African American activists like W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson had long supported anti-colonial struggles abroad. The successes of those struggles in turn inspired civil rights activists like Rosa Parks. Growing up in a family that supported the Jamaican Pan-African activist, Marcus Garvey, Parks drew inspiration from the long struggle against racism and imperialism throughout the world.
Experiment in social change. The video asks, “Where is today’s Rosa Parks and how can we help her?” There are many examples of courageous individuals risking their lives for justice. Consider Malala Yousafzai, the young woman shot in the head because of her outspoken defense of education for women. She continues to champion the right to education in her native Pakistan and throughout the world.
Identify someone you admire who has taken a lonely stand for justice. How can help that person or help the cause for which they stand?
Reflect and Question. June 1989. Tanks roll toward Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. Their mission: to crush the student-led democracy movement occupying the square. One man stands between the tanks and the pro-democracy activists.
Think about that man. Would you be willing to stand in front of the tanks? Even if you knew that no one would remember your name, that the protest would still be crushed? The “tank man” refused to move, but the square was still emptied, the democracy movement pushed underground. The tank man disappeared, his name lost to history.
Keep Learning. To learn more about Rosa Parks, explore our suggestions for further reading or…
See how networks empowered Andrew Carnegie…Explore why Gandhi risked his life…Uncover Einstein’s connection to the civil rights movement…Discover how Rachel Carson battled sexism…
Rosa Parks, one of the most famous figures in American history, is also one of the most misunderstood. Fortunately, historians have revealed the many facets of Parks and more and more people are recognizing the many dimensions of her life and work. A good place to start is with The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, an outstanding biography by Jeanne Theoharis. Or try the shorter biography by Douglas Brinkley, Rosa Parks: A Life. Another starting point is Herbert Kohl’s criticism of how children are informed (or misinformed) about the story of Parks, She Would Not Be Moved: How We Tell the Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Given the impact of Parks on the civil rights movement, many movement histories are also relevant to understanding her life and legacy.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
Jo Ann Robinson (Author) and David J. Garrow (Editor), Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson Paperback (University of Tennessee Press, 1987)
Martin Luther King, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010)
Aldon D. Morris, Origins of the Civil Rights Movements (New York: Free Press, 1986)
Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 2005)
Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007)
Clayborne Carson, In Struggle : SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995)
Wesley C. Hogan, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America (Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 2009)
Thomas J. Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (New York: Random House, 2008)
Matthew J. Countryman, Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007)
The Movement in the World
Penny M. Von Eschen, Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997)
Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011)