Radical is Ideal: The forgotten contexts of Rosa Parks

It was only natural that Rosa Parks received the unprecedented recognition, as the first woman in American history to lie in state at the Capitol, an honor usually reserved for Presidents of the United States.

After all, as the conservatives would have liked to put it: She was the perfect American woman. Securely married, well settled, employed and was a quiet, patient, spiritual woman. The American dreamer. One whose dream could be retold by Martin Luther King Jr. years later.

In the revisionist histories, there have been at least two versions of the same story. One that portrayed her as a humble woman, a seamstress, who got tired of segregation one day in December, 1955 and refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Her individual action then led to a whole nationwide movement like magic. This led to the non-violent leader Martin Luther King, Jr., to lead the people down the long road to freedom, which was established with the end of segregation. And the world became free of discrimination in the United States.

Following this story, people wonder what would have happened to MLK if Parks would not have boarded that bus that day. And what would have happened of all of us. Yes, by all of us, I mean ALL OF US. Asians in America as well (We owe it all to the mutual freedom struggles, dammit. Else, today the Indian and Chinese software engineers would not be negotiating salaries in the States. I wonder if most of the American born kids of Asian heritage have any idea of the connections. Or if all the temporary workers realize the saga of exploitation amidst the glory of dollarizations.)

This version also relates to the idea that the trip was not planned. Indeed, Rosa Parks has said on various occasions that she had not planned to be arrested. She had boarded the bus to reach home.

The second version takes a stab at the first and claims, well, you see, Rosa Parks was not tired (indeed Park has said this too). And that she was not the first one to do it anyway. She was required to be there. That she was the perfect case for the NAACP and all plans were underway. Time magazine wrote of her: “Parks was not the first to be detained for this offense. Eight months earlier, Claudette Colvin, 15, refused to give up her seat and was arrested. Black activists met with this girl to determine if she would make a good test case — as secretary of the local N.A.A.C.P., Parks attended the meeting — but it was decided that a more “upstanding” candidate was necessary to withstand the scrutiny of the courts and the press. And then in October, a young woman named Mary Louise Smith was arrested; N.A.A.C.P. leaders rejected her too as their vehicle, looking for someone more able to withstand media scrutiny. Smith paid the fine and was released.”

Hence this version demystifies the previous version and basically says, the trip was well planned. And that MLK was anyway going to lead the movement since he knew it was coming. And that the legendary trade union leader E. D. Nixon apparently said, “My God, look what segregation has put in my hands!” Parks was the ideal plaintiff for a test case against city and state segregation laws.

Both versions do not tell the story. Because they claim to be the stories themselves. Rosa Parks was an event, not a process. And the event is being confused as being the process. After all its easy to recall an event, celebrate and normalize it. MLK has become a national event today. Malcolm X and Paul Robeson are today featuring on the postage stamps. And Rosa Parks is an icon today—of righteousness, humbleness and generosity.

Let’s reset the contexts. The prepositions:
a. Rosa Parks was married to Raymond Parks. Actually after her husband’s death in 1977, she even co-founded an organization named after both of them. And yes, Raymond Parks was the force behind her. We shall soon need to discuss who Raymond Parks was since no one pretty much discusses him.

b. Rosa Parks was a social activist long before the bus event. She was involved in a process that culminated in the event. We shall need to understand the processes that led to her actions.

What do we know about Raymond Parks? Well, the official foundation named after both “The Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute” says the following about Raymond:

“Raymond Parks married Rosa McCauley December 18, 1932. He was a barber from Wedowee in Randolph County, Alabama. He had little formal education but a thirst for knowledge and a no nonsense approach to life. He supported his wife’s “Quiet Strength” and encouraged youth to get a good education to sup-port themselves, their families and to eliminate discrimination in this country.”

If you notice the page, there are just two pictures of Rosa. Nothing about Raymond.


Part I:

Well, to begin with, Raymond was a barber alright. But he was an activist way before Rosa had stepped in. So much so that he was raising funds for the National Committee to Save the Scottsboro Boys! Does that sound a bell? So the story begins from here. What has been conveniently forgotten in the recent recalling of history is that the case of Scottsboro Boys was the first event that actually put the process of struggle in place.

It involved the alleged gang rape of two white girls by nine black teenagers on the Southern Railroad freight run from Chattanooga to Memphis on March 25, 1931. And yes, this was a case that the NAACP then during the 30’s refused to take up.

The NAACP, which might have been expected to rush to the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, did not. Rape was a politically explosive charge in the South, and the NAACP was concerned about damage to its effectiveness that might result if it turned out some or all of the Boys were guilty. Instead, it was the Communist Party that moved aggressively to make the Scottsboro case their own…. The Communist Party, through its legal arm, the International Labor Defense (ILD), pronounced the case against the Boys a “murderous frame-up” and began efforts, ultimately successful, to be named as their attorneys. The NAACP, a slow-moving bureaucracy, finally came to the realization that the Scottsboro Boys were most likely innocent and that leadership in the case would have large public relations benefits. As a last-ditch effort to beat back the ILD in the battle over representation, NAACP officials persuaded renowned defense attorney Clarence Darrow to take their case to Alabama. But it was by then too late. The Scottsboro Boys, for better or worse, cast their lots with the Communists who, in the South, were “treated with only slightly more courtesy than a gang of rapists.”

Scottsboro Boys thus rejected NAACP’s offer and sought the help from the more radical leftist activists. And Raymond Parks was working in support of the Boys and promote radicalism within the NAACP. (For a short time much later, under Nixon, the radicalized NAACP worked together with the ILD to call for anti-lynching laws.) Rosa Parks got involved with the case of the Boys by marrying Raymond in 1932. Raymond was at that time collecting money to support the Scottsboro Boys. After marrying, Rosa took a number of jobs, ranging from domestic worker to hospital aide. At her husband’s urging, she finished her high school studies in 1933, at a time when less than seven percent of African Americans had a high school diploma. Despite the Jim Crow laws that made political participation by blacks difficult, she persevered in registering to vote, succeeding on her third try. This was made possible because both of them were members of the Voters’ League.

Part II:

In December 1943, after 11 years of marriage with Raymond who was a radical leftist activist, Parks became active in the American Civil Rights Movement, joined the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, and was elected volunteer secretary to its president, Edgar Nixon. Lest we forget, Nixon was a renowned trade unionist of the time. He became president of the Alabama NAACP only in 1947 and radicalized it. He was a close associate of Philip Randolph, the renowned labor leader (again whose stories are hardly discussed). Nixon naturally came in problems with the moderates. He resigned qith disgust from the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) which was being headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., as its president.

Nixon died unsung, although he was the one without whom the bus boycott could never have taken place as a process. Remember that Nixon put up his home as security to post the bond for Parks!

Not only Nixon, who was on the political left of the things and was conveniently shoved to the history’s closed pages, but we need to remember Clifford Durr (1899 – 1975) who was an Alabama lawyer who defended activists and others accused of disloyalty during the New Deal and McCarthy eras. He was the one who represented Rosa Parks in her challenge to the constitutionality of the ordinance requiring the segregation of passengers on buses in Montgomery that launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Who was Durr? He was branded as a communist and was put under FBI surveillance in 1942, because he had defended a colleague accused of left-wing political associations. His wife’s vigorous support for racial equality and voting rights for blacks and their friendship with Jessica Mitford, a member of the Communist Party, made both of them even more suspect. The FBI stepped up its interest in Durr in 1949, when he joined the National Lawyers Guild. He subsequently became the President of the Guild! And yes, hold on, Durr’s wife had employed Rosa Parks as the seamstress.

Durr called the jail when authorities refused to tell Nixon what the charges against Parks were and he and his wife accompanied Nixon to the jail when Nixon bailed her out. Nixon and Durr then went to the Parks’ home to discuss whether she was prepared to fight the charges against her. Parks was then as aforesaid, working as voluntary secretary to Nixon.

They had together waited for a politicized Parks to come to the scene. For 23 years now, Rosa Parks had support of her husband who was involved in several progressive struggles including Scottsboro defense, the campaign against lynching, and the struggle for voter and citizenship rights. When she did not give up her seat on that bus, it was culmination of the long process of revolution by resistance.

It’s another matter, this third version of progressive saga– of active involvement of left wing leaders and activists, always disgraced by both the mainstream white liberals and the cautious black leadership in the US– has been hijacked and replaced as an odd event for national celebration–by moderate activists and revisionist historians.

It must have pained her, but in her book “Quiet Strength”, Rosa Parks is categorical about one thing, that she did not change anything alone: “Four decades later I am still uncomfortable with the credit given to me for starting the bus boycott. I would like [people] to know I was not the only person involved. I was just one of many who fought for freedom.”

And yet this one of many has been canonized. For it helps to canonize than to contextualize. The dangers, as the establishments notice are not the heroes themselves. It is their heroic acts as part of a larger process that inspire generations. It is not individual acts of pacifying moderate church leaders, but radicalized moves by barbers like Raymond and lawyers like Durr and angry seamstresses like Rosa Parks who had taken to the streets to join worldwide radical movements addressing cases like Scottboro Boys or Labor Unions.

But if we go back to those pages, we will be flooded with gory images, not legendary icons. History of struggles have been fought with political aims and those aims of yesteryears conflict with the political agendas of today’s. Hence the attempts to iconize the angry freedom fighters.

After all, all icons look good on statues—they always put a smile on their lips.


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