By Ralph Nader
The Troy University Rosa Parks Museum is located on the side of the old Empire Theatre where this courageous African-American woman declined to “move to the back of the bus” in 1955.
A visit to the museum honoring her and other civil rights champions is a sobering reminder of just how courageous such a refusal was in that very segregated South. Mrs. Parks was promptly arrested and thus was launched the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott, which is credited with igniting the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s.
What most people do not know about Rosa Parks is that she was a trained civil rights worker who knew the significance of staying in her front seat and not giving it up to a white man. But she could not have predicted what happened after the police took her away.
Four days after she was arrested, the bus boycott started on December 5, 1955. A flyer distributed on that date by the Women’s Political Council of Montgomery noted the arrest of Mrs. Parks and two teenage “Negro” women—Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith—who earlier that year were arrested and fined for refusing to give up their seats.
The flyer went on to urge “every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don’t ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday.” They stayed off in the thousands.
Since three-fourths of the Montgomery bus riders were “Negroes,” the growing boycott grew to become a serious economic drain on the bus company. As it grew, and as the accompanying street marches and demonstrations started, the national news media began to cover it and a young charismatic minister by the name of Martin Luther King.
Sam Cook was at the Museum during our visit. He had a scrapbook of old newspaper clippings and photographs from those heady days when he occasionally was a driver for Rev. King.
In addition to the Museum’s timelines of history, artifacts, documents and memorabilia—there is a replica of the public bus on which Mrs. Parks was sitting—there are classrooms and a library to enhance the serious educational purposes for today that the Museum’s staff espouses.
The new Children’s Wing conveys to youngsters that “things just don’t happen in history—people make things happen. Visitors come to realize that they, too, can make a difference just as Rosa Parks, E.D. Nixon, Joanne Robinson, Fred Gray, Claudette Colvin, Georgia Gilmore and many others made a difference following in the footsteps of Dred Scott, Harriet Tubman, Homer Plessy and others who had gone before.”
Students today in Montgomery and other southern cities might wonder what all the fuss was about from white folk. The races mix easily in this city on buses, in stores, restaurants, cinemas, schools, hospitals and ballparks. Race, like class, still matters a great deal throughout the United States; but there has been undeniable progress.
The contemporary struggles for justice can learn from the ways the civil rights movement overcame a media boycott and moved hitherto immovable forces.
To be sure, it used the courts, and the streets with non-violent demonstrations. But never underestimate the personal story of an individual who heroically and selflessly takes on the Machine to spark the requisite rage and empathy that leads to larger and larger numbers of similarly situated people who swell the ranks of those demanding change or reform.
So powerful a model is this civil rights approach that when Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian-American youth counselor in Palestine’s West Bank tried to organize nonviolent civil disobedience against the Israeli occupation and repression, the Israeli government deported him in 1988 back to the United States. He proceeded to establish the group, Non-violence International, but he is still banned from Israel.
Commercial or labor strikes as a form of political protest received the ire of the Israelis. They would routinely break up strikes by cutting the locks on closed shops or welding doors shut and fining the shop owners.
In our country, we need the Rosa Parks of rebellion against gas and drug prices, home foreclosures, cruel prison conditions, huge up-front payments before entering hospitals, junk, obesity-illness-producing food, and breakdowns in municipal services.
Each historic, citizen-moving movement has its own style and personality. Granted, the mass media can be very picky indeed, as it has been with the soldiers who have refused to return to the unconstitutional, illegal war-occupation in Iraq. The heartfelt stories of these soldiers told at a recent “Winter Soldiers” gathering were not even covered by the New York Times or the television evening news. (But Amy Goodman did on Democracy Now!)
One must believe there is always a way to produce the human spark for a broader public morality and a deeper commitment to a more just society.
Rosa Parks, hail to thee!