"Beyond the Bus: Rosa Parks’ Lifelong Struggle for Justice"
Biographer Jeanne Theoharis, professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, describes in this article written for the Library of Congress Magazine, vol. 4 no. 2 (March-April 2015):16-18, the recently acquired Rosa Parks Papers and how they shed new light on Parks and her activism.
In September 2014, the Library of Congress received a remarkable 10-year loan of the Rosa Parks Collection. Businessman and philanthropist Howard Buffett had purchased the collection, which had languished in an auction house warehouse for years, to ensure the public would benefit from the historical record of Parks’ life.
These newly-acquired papers and photographs offer a rare look into the ideas and activities of a woman who changed the nation—not just on a single day on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus (see page 20) but over the course of her life. The material offers an unprecedented look at Parks’ speeches, private thoughts and political insights, revealing what it took to be a lifelong fighter for justice. It takes us behind the scenes in the Montgomery bus boycott and her role in it. It demonstrates how broad her political life was after leaving Montgomery for Detroit in 1957. More poignantly, it shows the decade-long toll that her stand against segregation took on her and her family.
Born in Alabama on Feb. 4, 1913, Rosa Louise McCauley had a determined spirit that was nurtured by her mother and grandparents. She chafed under the strictures of segregation. In 1931, she met Raymond Parks, a politically active barber, and they married in 1932. She joined him in organizing in defense of the nine Scottsboro boys, falsely accused of rape.
Her early writings reveal her “determination never to accept it, even if it must be endured,” which led her to “search for a way of working for freedom and first class citizenship.” In 1943, she became secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP and continued that work for the next decade. The branch, under the leadership of Parks and E.D. Nixon, focused on voter registration, youth outreach, pursuing legal remedies for black victims of white brutality and sexual violence and defending the wrongly accused. After years of such efforts, she grew increasingly discouraged by the lack of change. In August 1955, she journeyed to the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, an interracial organizer-training school, for a two-week workshop on school desegregation. The workshop buoyed her spirit.
Parks’ writings reveal that she was well aware that her refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger meant she might “be manhandled but I was willing to take the chance ... I suppose when you live this experience ... getting arrested doesn’t seem so bad.” When her arrest on December 1, 1955, sparked a community bus boycott, Parks labored hard to maintain the protest. Part of how the boycott was sustained for more than a year was through an elaborate, labor-intensive car-pool system. For one month, Parks served as a dispatcher, working to sustain the protest and exhorting riders and drivers to keep going. In her detailed instructions to carpool riders and drivers, she wrote, “Remember how long some of us had to wait when the buses passed us without stopping in the morning and evening.”
Fired from her job at Montgomery Fair department store a month into the boycott, Parks spent most of 1956 traveling throughout the country, raising awareness and funds for the movement. Letters home during her travels describe how heady and tiring this work was—meeting Thurgood Marshall, visiting the Statue of Liberty, doing radio interviews and giving numerous speeches.
Her efforts, alongside others in Montgomery, helped turn a local struggle into a national movement. “Our non-violent protest has proven to all that no intelligent right thinking person is satisfied with less than human rights that are enjoyed by all people.” In her notes for a Nov. 12, 1956, speech about the bus boycott at a local NAACP chapter, she celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision against bus segregation, but saw much work ahead.
Bus desegregation did not alleviate the suffering of the Parks family. Working class and living in the Cleveland Courts Projects, the Parks family had encountered periods of economic trouble before, but the toll that Parks’ arrest took on her family was enormous and far-reaching. Her bus protest plunged her family into a decade of health and economic instability, which is reflected in their 1955-1965 tax returns.
Both Rosa and Raymond lost their jobs early on in the boycott, developed health problems and never found steady work in Montgomery again. In the summer of 1957, they were forced to move to Detroit, to join her brother and extended family. For a time she worked as a hostess at the inn at Virginia’s Hampton Institute. But an ulcer and unhappiness about being away from her family made her leave the position and return to Detroit in late 1958. In 1959, they moved into the Progressive Civic League to serve as the building’s caretakers but had difficulty making the rent or even affording a refrigerator. Her health worsened, landing her in the hospital. She would not work steadily again until 1965.
But Parks’ political efforts continued. She protested housing segregation, participated in Detroit’s Great March for Freedom and attended the March on Washington in August 1963. The following year, Parks volunteered on John Conyers’ first congressional campaign for Michigan’s newly redrawn first district, on a platform of “Jobs, Justice, Peace.” After he was elected to Congress, Conyers hired her to work in his Detroit office, where she remained until her retirement in 1988.
Like Montgomery, Detroit was plagued with racial and social inequity. Her work with constituents in Rep. Conyers’ office, along with her own experiences in the city, made her keenly aware of the issues—from poverty and job discrimination to lack of access to health care and housing segregation to school inequality and police brutality.
Rosa Parks’ political activities in Detroit were even more diverse than they had been in Montgomery. She worked on prisoner support, helped run the Detroit chapter of the Friends of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and took part in the growing movement against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Attending scores of events and meetings across the city, she traveled regularly to take part in the growing Black Power movement across the country. When asked by a reporter from Sepia magazine in 1974 how she managed to do so much, she demurred, “I do what I can.”
In 1987, she and long-time friend Elaine Steele started the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, which continues today to educate youth about the struggle for civil and human rights.
On a drugstore bag found in her collection, an elderly Rosa Parks doodled over and over, “The Struggle Continues.” Hers lasted a lifetime, as her collection at the Library of Congress reveals.