There’s always a good reason to celebrate the courage and determination of Rosa Parks, but sixty years ago today, she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Everyone knows that, though. They
know that her protest led to a massive yearlong (and successful) boycott of the buses, introduced the world to a young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., and inspired a generation of young black people to use direct action tactics to break the back of Southern segregation. But there’s so much more to Rosa Parks. She was an intellectual who fought many fights against white oppression before and after the Montgomery boycott. I am probably most inspired by her dedication to women’s rights, in general, and safety and justice for black Southern women, in particular, during her long career in activism.
Over ten years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, in 1944, Recy Taylor was brutally raped by six white men in Abbeville, Alabama. A 24-year-old sharecropper, Taylor was walking home from the Rock Hill Holiness Church. The men drove up alongside her, ordered her to get in, and drove her to a vacant lot. Then at gunpoint, she was told, “Get them rags off or I’m going to kill you and leave you in the woods.” He held the gun while the other five men raped her. When they were done, they blindfolded her and left her in downtown Abbeville. Recy went home and immediately told her husband and her father about the horrific assault. They called Deputy Sheriff Lewey Corbitt and, ultimately, Rosa Parks.
Rosa Parks was raised in a Marcus Garvey household and she married an activist who protested on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys. She spent her life fighting against white oppression. When she heard of Taylor’s rape, she was 31 years old and had just joined NAACP a year earlier. As one of the only women in Montgomery’s NAACP chapter, she investigated Taylor’s assault and with the help of other women activists in Alabama formed the Committee for Equal Justice for Recy Taylor. They raised money and rallied for a fair trial. Parks and her allies successfully won the support of those who worked to free the Scottsboro Boys and the labor movement. Their protests garnered international attention. Even prominent white politicians were sympathetic, if powerless to sway the jury. Though Taylor’s attackers were acquitted, the committee, including Joanne Robinson, continued to advocate for black women and went on to organize the Montgomery Improvement Association that mobilized the Montgomery Bus Boycott. And, again, everyone knows how that turned out.
Perhaps, most importantly though, Parks and the Committee for Equal Justice proved the organizing power of Southern black women in laying a foundation for the modern Civil Rights Movement and carrying it forward.
Please read Danielle McGuire’s At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance: A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (Knopf, 2010).