Every American knows the story of Rosa Parks. Her refusal to surrender a bus seat to a white passenger in 1955 led to her arrest and sparked the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, a pivotal protest of the Civil Rights era that helped turn a young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into a national figure. It’s a history that’s still taught to students of all ages. While that act of civil disobedience made Parks an icon, it also tends to obscure her rich life of activism that went well beyond the bus boycott. In honor of Black History Month, let’s take a look at some of the artifacts about Parks that can be found in the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library and on display at the New-York Historical exhibition Women March (on view starting Feb. 28).
In March 1965, Parks joined Civil Rights Movement luminaries like King and Stokely Carmichael for the historic march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the violent suppression of black voters. Parks was characterized as a “courageous, civic-minded Alabama seamstress.” The description was complimentary, but also incomplete.
She was working as a seamstress at the time of the Montgomery boycott. But she was also a seasoned field secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. Historian Danielle L. McGuire traces how organizers of the bus boycott constructed Parks a “respectable, even saintly heroine” and a “matronly…symbol of virtuous black womanhood.” But this portrait neglected a radical past.
Parks got her start years earlier, organizing against sexual violence. In 1944, she spearheaded the NAACP’s investigation into the rape of Recy Taylor, a 24-year old mother and sharecropper from Abbeville, AL, who was attacked by six white men. This episode in Parks’ career is documented in Women March through a letter Parks sent to the Alabama governor, Chauncey Sparks. In a polite, but pointed, tone, Parks writes, “Alabamians are depending upon you to see that all obstacles, which are preventing justice in this case, be removed.” Despite Parks’ efforts, an all-white grand jury failed to indict the accused and justice was never served.
It was exactly this kind of experience that prepared Parks for Montgomery. As historians such as Danielle McGuire and Estelle Freedman have demonstrated, white men’s sexual attacks on black women formed a crucial plank of Jim Crow. Segregated public transportation provided ample opportunity for white passengers and bus drivers to violate African American women with impunity. It was a message and a cause that Parks carried throughout her life: in 1974, she co-founded the Detroit chapter of the Joan Little Defense Committee, which formed to support a young black woman in North Carolina who stood trial for killing her prison guard in self-defense after he attempted to rape her.
This broader view of Parks’ decades-long activist career is just one example of how African American women made protection from sexual abuse an important goal of the Civil Rights Movement, and one on an equal footing with ending legal segregation. Under the cover of radical black organizing, African American women organized to confront rape decades before the women’s liberation movement took up the issue of sexual violence. Parks’ efforts, alongside countless black women activists like her, shaped civil rights organizing across the country.
Written by Caitlin Wiesner, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History, Center for Women’s History, New-York Historical Society