Excerpts from Rosa Parks: My Story (Puffin Books, 1992)
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Introduction by michelle for her EOI students (state-run adult language education in Spain, 2013-14):
This autobiography is a beautiful, inspiring and powerful example of nonviolent struggle. As you read, try to notice the countless ingredients that go into the pot of social struggle, from feelings that push us to individual action to community organizing. Notice all the kinds of things activists do when they are in the struggle: envisioning and performing direct action, spreading ideas and information, attending and giving workshops and talks, learning about the law and about how to change it, developing networks of mutual support... And notice repression, too – how the authorities supporting segregation laws and racist people were responding.
Although Rosa Parks does not share here a feminist assessment of her experiences, she does include some relevant information about the world problem of machismo. [I was also at the 1963 March on Washington to push for federal civil-rights laws. Women were not allowed to play much of a role. ... Instead there was a separate procession for them. There were also no female speakers on the program, the one where Dr. King gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. But there was a "Tribute to Women" in which ... introduced some of the women who had participated in the struggle ... (p. 165-6)] Please, don't ignore it. Rosa Parks was not (just) a housewife, tired of her day's work or a secretary assisting the true activists, men. She was an activist herself. (Read the last paragraph on page 134 in chapter 9 and consider, Would a male activist have behaved that way? Wouldn't he have considered that he was the protagonist and shouldn't be performing those "minor" tasks?) Try to expand your thinking to include your own development of a feminist intelligence, too, for feminism is a kind of social struggle that has always used nonviolence and has never been credited for its contribution to building a better world. Learning about nonviolence involves noticing women and feminism, too! Martin Luther King and Gandhi were religious patriarchs and therefore their nonviolence was not sensitive to gender injustice. Women have been using nonviolent struggle for centuries. Learn to miss women as thinkers, artists, activists, these people with a human mind that have been just considered good for serving as slaves in patriarchal societies since the Neolithic.
Racism and machismo are so deeply rooted in our minds that we still just consider "struggle" what some men using violence do to push other men out of power positions. However, the fact remains that the most intelligent and beautiful things humans have been capable of have had nothing to do with violence. Think of when at last we understood the idea of "human rights" – in the 20th century! Violence is not what makes us human, though patriarchal societies have developed violence in a solely human way – to enact cruelty and abuse. Violence dehumanizes us because of its prize, as people who fought for social justice and were forced to use violence can tell you. Even when we use it in self-defense – and obviously violence in self-defense has nothing to do with violence used to exploit, dominate, torture and murder people – violence hurts us, it drives us away of why we started struggling in the first place.
At the beginning of the 21st century we have witnessed massive nonviolent struggle all over the world, and this time not only by feminists and colored people (black, brown, gold). Let's hope we keep that strong!
Chapter 1: How It All Started
One evening in early December 1955 I was sitting in the front seat of the colored section of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The white people were sitting in the white section. More white people got on, and they filled up all the seats in the white section. When that happened, we black people were supposed to give up our seats to the whites. But I didn't move. The white driver said, "Let me have those front seats." I didn't get up. I was tired of giving in to white people.
"I'm going to have you arrested," the driver said.
"You may do that," I answered.
Two white policemen came. I asked one of them, "Why do you all push us around?"
He answered, "I don't know, but the law is the law and you're under arrest."
For half of my life there were laws and customs in the South that kept African Americans segregated from Caucasians and allowed white people to treat black people without any respect. I never thought this was fair, and from the time I was a child, I tried to protest against disrespectful treatment. But it was very hard to do anything about segregation and racism when white people had the power of the law behind them.
Somehow we had to change the laws. And we had to get enough white people on our side to be able to succeed. I had no idea when I refused to give up my seat on that Montgomery bus that my small action would help put an end to the segregation laws in the South. I only knew that I was tired of being pushed around. I was a regular person, just as good as anybody else. There had been a few times in my life when I had been treated by white people like a regular person, so I knew what that felt like. It was time that other white people started treating me that way.
Chapter 7: White Violence Gets Worse
There were more violent incidents against black people in the late 1940s, after World War II ended.
... I remember 1949 as a very bad year. Things happened that most people never heard about, because they never were reported in the newspapers. At times I felt overwhelmed by all the violence and hatred but there was nothing to do but keep going.
By that time I was both secretary of the Senior Branch of the NAACP, which was for the older people, and adviser to the NAACP Youth Council. I enjoyed working with young people. The high school students were the largest group in the Youth Council. One of our projects was getting the young people to try to take out books from the main library instead of going to the little branch across town that was the colored library.
The colored library did not have many books, and a student who wanted a book that wasn't there had to request it from the colored library, which in turn would order it from the main library. The student would have to return to the colored library to get the book. The members of the NAACP Youth Council went to the main library and asked for service there, saying that it was inconvenient for them to go to the colored library, which was quite far away. They did this again and again, but they were unsuccessful in changing the practice.
... [In] 1954, the United States Supreme Court handed down the famous decision Brown v. Board of Education that declared segregated education unconstitutional. The NAACP had been working for that for years and years, since around 1925. They had attacked the issue of "separate but equal" education from all different angles, because of course from whatever angle you looked at it, education in the South was separate but not equal.
... Back in the 1920s and 1930s, the NAACP had started fighting for equal pay for black teachers. ... but it took a long time, ... from 1938 to 1945. You see, to file a suit on behalf of a lot of people -- what they call a class action -- you have to have a plaintiff, someone who will represent the others. It took a lot of courage to be plaintiff. You could be risking your life. ... The NAACP and the teachers finally won ... and pay equality started in the fall of 1945.
Before the NAACP brought suit in Brown v. Board of Education in 1951, about a dozen other suits against unequal elementary and high schools had been filed ... But it was the Brown case in Topeka, Kansas, that finally went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for a decision. Two NAACP lawyers named Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall made it happen. ...
You can't imagine the rejoicing among black people, and some white people, when the Supreme Court decision came down in May 1954. The Court had said that separate education could not be equal, and many of us saw how the same idea applied to other things, like public transportation.
It was a very hopeful time. African Americans believed that at last there was a real chance to change the segregation laws.
Chapter 8: "You're Under Arrest"
I don't think any segregation law angered black people in Montgomery more than bus segregation. ...
More of us rode the buses than Caucasians did, because more whites could afford cars. It was very humiliating having to suffer the indignity of riding segregated buses twice a day, five days a week, to go downtown and work for white people.
... Jo Ann Robinson ... in 1956 ... had helped found the Women's Political Council. Over the years she'd had her share of run-ins with bus drivers, but at first she couldn't get the other women in the Council to get indignant. ... She had often brought protests to the bus company on behalf of the Women's Political Council. Finally she managed to get the company to agree that the buses would stop at every corner in black neighborhoods, just as they did in the white neighborhoods. But this was a very small victory.
What galled her, and many more of us, was that blacks were over sixty-six percent of the riders. ... I remember having discussions about how a boycott of the city buses would really hurt the bus company in its pocketbook. But I also remember asking a few people if they would be willing to stay off the buses to make things better for us, and them saying that they had too far to go to work. So it didn't seem as if there would be much support for a boycott. The Montgomery NAACP was beginning to think about filing suit against the city of Montgomery over bus segregation. But they had to have the right plaintiff and a strong case. ...
... [In] 1955 ... I did not intend to get arrested. IF I had been paying attention, I wouldn't even have gotten on that bus.
I was very busy at that particular time. ...
The more we gave in and complied, the worse they treated us.
... People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or not more tired than I usually was at th end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in. ...
Chapter 8: "They've Messed With the Wrong One Now"
... Meanwhile Fred Gray, the black attorney, had called Jo Ann Robinson and told her about my arrest. She got in touch with other leaders of the Women's Political Council, and they agreed to call for a boycott of the buses starting Monday, December 5, the day of my trial. So on the Thursday night I was arrested, they met at midnight at Alabama State, cut a mimeograph stencil, and ran off 35,000 handbills. The next morning she and some of her students loaded the handbills into her car, and she drve to all the local black elementary and junior igh and high schools to drop them off so the students could take them home to their parents.
This is what the handbill said:
This is for Monday, December 5, 1955.
Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown into jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus and give it to a white person.
It is the second time since the Claudette Colvin case that a Negro woman has been arrested for the same thing. This has to be stopped.
Negroes have rights, too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses, they could not operate. Three-fourths of the riders are Negroes, yet we are arrested, or have to stand over empty seats. If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or your daughter, or mother.
This woman's case will come up on Monday. We are, therefore, asking 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.
You can afford to stay out of the school for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don't ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off all buses Monday.
... That day ... everybody was quite amazed at that demonstration of people staying off the buses. ...
Chapter 10: Stride Toward Freedom
... The boycott lasted through that week, and then through the next. No one had any idea how long it would last. ...
... All through the spring we walked and carpooled. ...
[Segregation on the Montgomery buses was declared unconstitutional on November 13, 1956. The written order from the U.S. Supreme Court arrived on December 20.]
... The boycott had lasted more than a year. ...
Integrating the Montgomery buses did not go smoothly. Snipers fired at buses ... [t]he homes and churches of some ministers were bombed ... Black people were not going to be scared off the buses any more than they were going to be scared onto them when they refused to ride. ...
... The direct-action civil-rights movement had begun. [The Civil Rights Act would be passed in 1964.]