The popular image of Parks is one of quiet, and demure respectability. When we were in elementary school, we were taught that Parks was a tired old woman, whose feet hurt after a long day on the job. Because she was a Black woman living in the south, she was relegated to the “back of the bus” on Montgomery, Alabama’s public transportation. Yet, that day Parks did not move to the back of the bus. It was understood that her personal feelings and fatigue were the reason she did not give up her seat for a white passenger on that fateful day in December 1955, not her “lifetime of being rebellious,” as Parks herself said about her activism. Today we’ll discuss Rosa Parks, the mid twentieth century civil rights movement in the United States, and the formation of memory.

Transcript for Rosa Parks: Myth & Memory in the American Civil Rights Movement

Written & Researched by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD
Recorded by Elizabeth Garner Masarik & Averill Earls, PhD

Elizabeth:  On Wednesday February 27, 2013, a statue of Rosa Parks was unveiled in National Statuary Hall in the U.S. capitol. The bronze statue is close to nine feet tall when resting on its hefty granite pedestal and all-in-all it weighs roughly 2,700 pounds.

Averill: The statue depicts Parks seated on a rough, rock-like formation. Her ankles are demurely crossed, and her hands grasp the handle of her purse, which rests in her lap. She is modestly dressed in a coat and shin-length dress, lace-up shoes, and a brimless hat on her head. The statue is supposed to represent Parks on the fateful day in December, 1955 when she refused to give up her bus seat for a white passenger. The statue shows Parks looking directly forward, a stern, determined look on her face. In the words of the Architect of the Capitol, the statue “suggests inner strength, dignity, resolve and determination…”[1]

Elizabeth: However, the statue also feeds into the romantic myth of Rosa Parks. The popular image of Parks is one of quiet, and demure respectability. When I was in elementary school, I was taught that Parks was a tired old woman, whose feet hurt after a long day on the job. Because she was a Black woman living in the south, she was relegated to the “back of the bus” on Montgomery, Alabama’s public transportation. Yet, that day Parks did not move to the back of the bus. It was understood that her personal feelings and fatigue were the reason she did not give up her seat for a white passenger on that fateful day in December 1955, not her “lifetime of being rebellious,” as Parks herself said about her activism. I was taught that Parks alone sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott that– in my schooling at least– desegrated all the busses. There was no mention of the hundreds of other activists working for change and who made the boycott a success. Next, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a great speech about having a dream, and after that everyone lived happily ever after. The Civil Rights era was over and that’s all in the past now. The End.

Averill: This is an example of what scholar Vincent Gordon Harding called “a massive case of amnesia.”[2] The contemporary construction of Parks as a quiet, respectable seamstress who just had enough overshadows her lifetime of social and political activism. Historian Jeanne Theoharis states that this one-dimensional construction of Parks is “…a troubling distortion of what actually makes her fitting for such a national tribute.”[3]

Today we’ll discuss Rosa Parks, the mid twentieth century civil rights movement in the United Sates, and the formation of memory.

I’m Elizabeth

And I’m Averil

And we’re you historians for this episode of DIG

Averil: Eulogies at her 2005 funeral remarked on Rosa Parks’ “quiet” and “humble” attributes. A New York Times article memorialized her as “the accidental matriarch of the civil rights movement,” and almost all of the tributes and speeches focused on that “singular event” in Montgomery, Alabama December 1955 when Rosa Parks would not give up her bus seat to a white man. [4]

Elizabeth: This overshadows the lifelong span of Parks’ activism, which began two decades before that fateful day in December. An intentional examination of Parks’ life exposes a “life history of being rebellious,” as Parks herself liked to call it. Much of this episode is based on Jeanne Theoharis’ article “’A Life History of Being Rebellious’: The Radicalism of Rosa Parks,” and for a deeper dive I recommend reading Theoharis’ full book The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.

Averil: Rosa Parks was born as Rosa Louis McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama on February 4, 1913. Rosa McCauley was raised by her mother and grandparents, all of whom instilled in Rosa a level of self-respect and racial pride. Rosa’s grandfather was a strong supporter of Marcus Garvey, who in inspired Garvyism, a movement of Black empowerment and racial pride during the early twentieth century. Rosa picked cotton as a child and attended a segregated school in Montgomery, Alabama that operated on a shortened school calendar year so that Black students could be in the fields during harvest season. 

Elizabeth: Montgomery did not provide a high school for black students, so Rosa attended The Laboratory High School, located on the campus of the Alabama State Teachers College, that trained African Americans as teachers. Lab High’s slogan was, “Study the growth and beauty of nature—plants and animals for individual development,” and served as an observation and teaching site for teachers in training.[5] Unfortunately, Rosa had to drop out of school in the eleventh grade in order to care for her aging grandmother. She also found work as a domestic worker. Soon she met Raymond Parks in the spring of 1931 and was impressed by his political activism. They married in December of 1932.

Averil: Raymond Parks was already involved in organizing on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys and Rosa joined him in the movement after they were married. The Scottsboro Boys were nine Black teenagers who were falsely accused of rating two white women while riding freight cars during the Great Depression. The nine teens were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death in Scottsboro, Alabama. The trials and retrials of the teens sparked an international uproar and famously the Communist Party of the United States supplied funds for the boy’s lawyers. The case resulted in two landmark U.S. Supreme Court verdicts that eventually freed all nine teenagers, but not before they spent years suffering in the Alabama prison system. 

Elizabeth: During this time, Rosa went back to school and earned her high school diploma in 1933.

Averill: In 1943 Rosa Parks began attending NAACP meetings and soon became the secretary of the Montgomery Alabama NAACP chapter and worked closely with the chapter president, E.D. Nixon. The chapter focused much of its attention on the defense of a young Black serviceman accused of rape by a white woman in Montgomery. They also concentrated on registering Black people to vote. In 1943 there were only thirty-one Black people registered to vote.

Elizabeth: I couldn’t find statistics for Montgomery alone, but I found some numbers to try to put that 31 into context. In 1940 the state of Alabama had 2,832,961 people. 983,290 of those people were Black. Considering that Montgomery is one of three large cities in the state, that 31 is criminally low.

Averill: Between 1943 to 1945, Parks tried to register to vote on numerous occasions. She finally succeeded in registering in 1945 but was forced to pay $1.50 back poll taxes for each year that she had been eligible to vote before election officials would let her cast a vote. To put that in perspective, $1.50 in 1945 money is roughly $23 in today’s money. She was 31 years old, so 23×10 (because the voting age in 1945 was 21, not 18), that was roughly $230. That’s a formidable fine for a working-class family to pay.

Elizabeth: Beginning with the Scottsboro case, Rosa Parks spent much of her life fighting the injustices that Black people experienced in the American South. In 1944 Parks organized the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor. Recy Taylor was a twenty-four-year-old Black mother and sharecropper who was abducted and gang-raped by six white men when walking home from church in Abbeville, Alabama on September 3, 1944. Rosa Parks, working in her capacity as the secretary of the NAACP, went to Abbeville and began investigating the crime.

Averill: Parks helped organize Taylor’s defense by bringing together E.P. Nixon, president of the NAACP chapter and union man who headed the Alabama Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porter’s Union, Rufus A. Lewis, who directed a funeral home and the football team at Alabama State, and E.G. Jackson, the editor of the Alabama Tribune newspaper. Together they formed a committee that utilized networks built through organizing for the Scottsboro case, bringing in labor unions, African American groups, and women’s clubs. Firebrands such as W.E.B. DuBois, Mary Church Terrell, and Langston Hughes all helped the case rise to prominence. However, the footwork put in by Parks was what made such an alliance feasible, as she met with Taylor to get her account first-hand, and then spread Recy Taylor’s story from rural Alabama into a campaign for justice that the Chicago Defender called the “strongest campaign to be seen in a decade.”[6]

Elizabeth: The Alabama governor Sparks received thousands of letters from across the country, demanding justice for Recy Taylor. The case even threatened America’s efficiency in WWII, as black troops were angered by the gage rape of Taylor. Charles S. Seeley, the director of the Army News wrote to Governor Sparks and asked him to “…assure Negro soldiers that you will see to it that the ‘degenerate and ruthless person who attacked Mrs. Taylor are brought to justice and severely punished.” Otherwise, he wrote “it is senseless to fight fascism abroad if fascistic influences are to be protected here at home.”[7]

Averill: But even though the rape of Recy Taylor, sometimes called the “Abbeville Affair,” because a national issue, two grand juries never brought indictments against the assailants. They were never brought to justice. However, the Recy Taylor case highlighted the power of sexual assault against Black women to mobilize communities and build coalitions.

Elizabeth: According to historian Danielle McGuire, “The Recy Taylor case brought the building blocks of the Montgomery bus boycott together a decade earlier and kept them in place until it became Rosa Park’s turn to testify. When that boycott took off, no one called it a women’s movement, though many observers then and since have noted the centrality of women in its ranks. Even Dr. King credited ‘the zeitgeist’ when asked to comment on the strange, spontaneous combustion of the bus protest. But the Montgomery bus boycott was not a prairie fire, or a rising tide, or a gear that tumbled in the cosmos. It was another in a series of campaigns that began when Rosa Parks rode up to Abbeville in 1944 to gather the facts in the Recy Taylor case, so that black women could tell their stories.”[8]

Averill: Parks became the secretary of the Alabama state branch of the NAACP during this time. She continued to travel throughout the state of Alabama, documenting cases of white-on-black violence, particularly sexual violence against women, in an attempt to find some legal justice. She issues press releases to Alabama newspapers to spread the word about the violence, and also what she was doing. According to Theoharis, Black communities understood that “Rosa will talk with you,” if you had something to report. 

Averill: Another case that Rosa Parks organized on behalf of was the case of Jeremiah Reeves, a sixteen-year-old Black teenager who was caught by a neighbor having consensual sex with a white woman. However, once the white woman was faced with the prospect of a ruined reputation because she was having an affair with a Black man, she cried rape. Reeves was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death. From 1952 until his 1958 execution, Parks and others fought to get him off Alabama’s Death Row but Reeves was executed on March 28, 1958. “It was a tragedy he lost his life,” Parks said years later. “It was very difficult to keep going when all our work seemed to be in vain.”[9]

Elizabeth: The fight to free Reeves was the primary focus of NAACP efforts when Martin Luther King Jr., then 25, arrived in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954. King wrote about the Reeves case in his memoir, “Stride Toward Freedom.” He wrote, “In the years that he [Reeves] sat in jail, several white men in Alabama had also been charged with rape; but their accusers were Negro girls. They were seldom arrested; if arrested, they were soon released by the grand jury; none was ever brought to trial. For good reason the Negroes of the South had learned to fear and mistrust the white man’s justice.”[10]

Averill: Parks continued to hone her activism. In the summer of 1955, she attended the Highlander Folk School, a training center for labor and civil rights activists in Tennessee. The Highlander School was all about trying to teach people how to be leaders of their own movements. Parks attended a two-week workshop on school desegregation, taking off of work to do so. Parks viewed the experience as a high moment writing, “I was 42 years old, and it was one of the few times in my life up to that point when I did not feel any hostility from white people. . . . I felt that I could express myself honestly without any repercussions or antagonistic attitudes from other people. . . . It was hard to leave.”[11] Doing work and workshops at Highlander was a way to learn how to lead and organize people in your home community. It was very much about the kind of power an individual can hone, to then lead civil rights movements in their own communities.

Elizabeth: The Highlander School was continually red-baited throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In 1957 the Georgia Commission on Education attacked the school as a “Communist training school” and featured 15 pictures of “leaders of every major race incident,” five included Parks.  Billboards lined southern highways that used a photo showing Martin Luther King Jr. at Highlander, the headline reading “Communist training school” in big, bold letters. Rosa Parks is clearly visible in the photo used on the billboards as well. Nevertheless, Parks continued her support oh Highlander, and “offering to do whatever I can” for the school.[12]

Averill: By 1955 there were many instances of African Americans resisting Jim Crow segregation. In fact, by the mid-1950s, defiance of bus segregation was common. In July of 1944, Irene Morgan refused to go to the segregated section at the back of a bus traveling from Virginia to Maryland. Her case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled segregation on interstate transportation was unconstitutional.

Elizabeth: In June of 1953 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana a one-day bus boycott was called because of inhumane treatment of Black passengers by white drivers. Three weeks later a longer boycott was called. It lasted seven-days and resulted in a partial desegregation of city buses in Baton Rouge. 

Averill: In Montgomery, Alabama organizers were already pushing back against the city’s racist bus practices. On May 1, 1954, Jo Ann Robinson, president of the Alabama Women’s Political Council (WPC) wrote a letter to Mayer W.A. Gayle decrying the humiliations endured by Black bus passengers and warned of a bus boycott if conditions did not improve.

Elizabeth: In June through July of 1954, Sarah Mae Flemming filed a suit against her removal from a Columbia, South Carolina bus. Her case failed, but on appeal the Fourth Federal Circuit Court ordered the city of Columbia to integrate its buses. In response, bus companies in sixteen other Southern cities integrated in compliance with the court ruling. However, Montgomery maintained its segregated buses, arguing that the Flemming decision only applied to Columbia.  

Claudette Colvin

             Claudette Colvin

Averill: In March 1955 fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to move to the back of a segregated Montgomery bus. She was arrested, convicted, and fined. Parks helped raise money for Colvin’s case and brought Colvin into the NAACP Youth Council. In April, Aurelia Browder refused to move to the segregated section of a Montgomery bus. She too was arrested, convicted, and fined. Later in October that same year, eighteen-year-old Mary Louise Smith of Montgomery was arrested, convicted, and fined for violating the city’s bus segregation code. Several days later, Suzi McDonald was arrested and fined for the same offense.

Elizabeth: The Montgomery NAACP wanted to bring suit against Montgomery bus segregation but ultimately neither Colvin nor Smith was deemed the kind of plaintiff that the NAACP wanted to back for a legal case. Afterwards, a group of activists took a petition to the bus company and city officials asking for more courteous treatment and no visible signs of segregation on the bus. Parks refused to go with them, writing “I had decided I would not go anywhere with a piece of paper in my hand asking white folks for any favors.”[13]

Averill: On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a bus on her way home from work from Montgomery Fair department store, where she worked as a seamstress. James Blake was the bus driver that day. Blake had treated Parks horribly on past bus rides. In 1953, Parks boarded a bus driven by Blake. She paid her fare but then Blake told her she had to exit the bus through the front door and walk along to the back side door of the bus to reenter and find her seat. She got off and did not reenter the bus at the back. Blake drove away with her bus fare.

Elizabeth: In a 1985 interview Parks recalled what it was like to ride the busses in Montgomery:

Parks: And going to the back door after paying your fare in the front would mean sometime that people wouldn’t even get on the bus at all because if you couldn’t get around fast enough to suit the driver, he would just drive off and leave you standing after you paid your fare.


Parks: … I think it was the individual drivers because some drivers didn’t do that…[14]

Averill: So on December 1, 1955 Parks boards Blake’s bus. She’s actually stated that she forgot to check who was driving the bus that day. Had she noticed it was Blake, she said she would have waited for the next bus. Regardless, Parks and three other black passengers were seated in a row toward the middle of the bus. Black people were allowed to sit in this middle section but a bus driver could tell them to move out of the middle section and into the designated “Negro section” if the driver decided to do so. On this day, a white man boarded the bus but there were no more seats remaining in the white section. Since white and Black people were not supposed to mix together at all in these public spaces, the terms of Montgomery’s segregation ruled that all four Black passengers would have to get up so one white man could sit down in this middle section. Blake told the Black passengers give up their seats. The three other people moved but Parks did not. She recalled that she had not planned to protest that day, but “I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed… I felt that if I did stand up, it meant that I approved of the way I was being treated, and I did not approve.”[15]

Elizabeth: Often we’ve been taught that Rosa Parks was just a little old lady with tired feet and she just didn’t want to get up. Parks herself critiqued these popular mischaracterizations, stating “I didn’t tell anyone my feet were hurting. It was just popular, I suppose because they wanted to give some excuse other than the fact that I didn’t want to be pushed around.” But we need to be very clear how seriously dangerous this was. Like other bus drivers in Montgomery, Blake carried a gun on him when he drove. And Black people had been shot dead by bus drivers for refusing to move to segregated sections of buses.

Averill: In 1944 Private Edward Green was killed by bus driver in Alexandria Louisiana for refusing to move to the segregated section of the bus. A report by the Department of Defense chronicled the beating of a Black nurse in Montgomery, Alabama on a bus during WWII. Private Booker T. Spicely was killed by a bus driver in Durham, Alabama in July 1944 for refusing to give up his seat for a white passenger. Having done a great deal of organizing around the criminal justice system, Parks was well aware of the physical dangers a black woman faced in getting arrested, including the very real threat of sexual violence.[16]

Elizabeth: James Blake ordered Parks to move from her middle seat, and when she would not, he had her arrested and taken to jail. Community leaders quickly sprung into action. E. D. Nixon and lawyers Fred Gray and Clifford Durr found the respectable plaintiff they had been looking for. She is forty-two years old, and well-respected in the community and so she is a good face for the movement. But she also has this really long history of political activism. People know and trust her because she’s been active in this work for so many years. Nixon asked Parks to be part of a legal case against bus segregation, and she agreed.

Averill: The Montgomery Bus Boycott itself was called by the previously mentioned Women’s Political Council (WPC), which was a local group of black women formed to address racial inequities in the city. After hearing about Parks’ arrest, Jo Ann Robinson, a professor of English at Alabama State College, rallied the WPC to make good on their threat to boycott the buses. Robinson, with the help of two of her students, used her departments mimeograph machine to make 50,000 leaflets that called for a boycott the following Monday.

Elizabeth: One unnamed member of the WPC later said:

JoAnn could have been fired from her job at the college…. Most of us [professors] had families to support and had to be careful about being openly involved…. JoAnn was something else … so determined . . . didn’t even seem to be afraid if they [administrators] found out…. Hah! She used the mimeograph machines in the college to run off leaflets about the boycott![17]

Averill: The 50,000 leaflets read: “Another Negro woman has been arrested….If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue….We are therefore asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial.”[18] Parks’ individual action sparked a movement because the groundwork in Montgomery had already been laid. Those networks, reaching back all the way to the Recy Taylor case, sprung into action for the boycott. Those networks were what made the boycott work, and Parks later said, “Four decades later I am still uncomfortable with the credit given to me for starting the bus boycott. Many people do not know the whole truth. . . . I was just one of many who fought for freedom.”[19]

Elizabeth: E. D. Nixon began organizing Montgomery’s black ministers to convince them to support the boycott. Two of these ministers were Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr., who had only arrived in Montgomery a year before but was already enmeshed with the activist networks because of his work for Jeremiah Reeves.

Averill: Come Monday, nearly every Black person in Montgomery stayed off the bus. Later that evening a crowd of 15,000 people gathered at the Holt Street Baptist Church for a meeting. Collectively they decided to continue the boycott until the buses were no longer segregated. and they also formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA).

Elizabeth: In order to get people around town during the boycott, the churches bought or rented cars and station wagons to transport people. To raise money to support the boycott Georgia Gilmore, a cook and domestic worker organized the Club From Nowhere, which she ingeniously named to avoid compromising white as well as Black patrons. According to one participant:

The club went door to door asking for donations and selling dinner plates and baked goods …. [They] made weekly reports on all the money collected from all kinds of people-Blacks and whites. Some of these people didn’t want it known that they had given money to the movement, so they wouldn’t give Mrs. Gilmore and the other ladies checks that could be traced, only cash. And Mrs. Gilmore made sure they didn’t tell anybody who had made the donations. That’s why it was called the Club From Nowhere, so that none of the people giving the money could be in the least bit accused of supporting the movement[20]

Averill: On December 8, 1955, MIA leaders tried to negotiate with Montgomery Mayor, W. A. Gayle, and representatives of the bus companies. The MIA’s demands included: the courteous treatment of black passengers; seating on a first come, first served basis with blacks filling the bus from the rear and whites from the front and no reserved seats; and hiring of black drivers on predominantly black routes.

Elizabeth: However, the city stood firm in its commitment to bus segregation and so people continued to walk and carpool. In fact, it took a massive amount of work to organize and keep the boycott going. Many women worked as dispatchers, calling cabs and organizing carpools to get the city’s Black residents to work and the bank and shopping and all of the other places that people need to go.

Averill: Boycotters were continually harassed and membership in the segregationist White Citizens Council doubled; Montgomery’s mayor and police commissioner added themselves to the number while other segregationists began a program of intimidation and violence against the city’s black citizens. The city government revoked licenses from taxi drivers who lowered rates for boycotters, ticketed automobiles carrying them to work, forbade carpools to pick up passengers on public property, and tried unsuccessfully to disrupt the boycott by broadcasting false information about its resolution.[21] King’s, Nixon’s, Ralph Abernathy, and Robert Greatz’s houses were even bombed, but luckily neither one of their families were hurt.

Elizabeth: After eight days of investigation, a grand jury found that 89 protesters had violated an “anti-boycott” law adopted in 1921 to prevent labor organizing. The indictments named Rosa Parks, MLK, Jo Ann Robinson, and many other prominent black citizens. Twenty-eight witnesses were called to testify the abusive treatment they had to endure by bus drivers. King was found guilty and ordered to pay a $500 and 386 days of hard labor. He was released on bond. Parks refused to pay the $14 fine imposed for her December 1, 1955, violation and on February 22, 1956 she was sentenced to 14 days in jail but appealed to the State Supreme Court and was released on bond. She was also arrested on the antiboycott charge, fingerprinted under the eyes and cam eras of the press, and indicted.

Averill: Nevertheless, Parks continued to give speeches on behalf of the NAACP and MIA, attend meetings and organize the NAACP youth program, helped distribute clothes and food, and served as a dispatcher for the boycott.

Elizabeth: Yet Park’s brave action was taking a toll on her financial stability. Montgomery Fair, the department store where Parks worked as a seamstress, let Parks go. A week later Raymond Parks resigned his job at a barbershop on Maxwell Airforce Base because employer prohibited any discussion of the boycott or Rosa Parks in the shop. As a political activist, this was unacceptable for Raymond Parks worked. So basically, one month into the boycott neither Rosa nor Raymond had jobs anymore and are never able to find stable work in Montgomery. Additionally, their landlord raised their rent ten dollars a month.

Averill: The Parks home received death threats and regular hate mail. Remember, MLK’s and Nixon’s houses had already been bombed so it was feasible that the Parks home could be bombed as well. This stress took a physical toll on Rosa, Raymond, and her mother who lived with them. Parks developed physical ailments due to the stress as well. Yet she continued to play an active role in coordinating the boycott.

Elizabeth: Lawyer Fred Gray wanted Rosa Parks to be lead plaintiff in his federal case, but her December 5th conviction was still pending in the Alabama appeals court and could not be heard in a federal court until the state had acted. To wait might postpone the case indefinitely; therefore, the NAACP Legal fund filed a federal civil action lawsuit with Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith and Jeanetta Reese as the plaintiffs who had been discriminated against bus drivers. The case was Browder v Gayle.

Averill:. On June 4, 1956, the federal district court decided that the Montgomery segregation law violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court. On November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court ruled the segregation of buses unconstitutional but the boycott continued for another month until the order reached Montgomery. The city issued an ordinance authorizing passengers to seat anywhere they choose in the bus.

Elizabeth: With the Supreme Court’s ruling in Browder v. Gayle, the 381-day boycott ended. On December 20, 1956, the day the buses were desegregated in Montgomery, nearly all the media ignored Parks in favor of quotes from and pictures of King. Glenn Smiley, E. D. Nixon, Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr. boarded the first desegregated bus in the city. It was Look magazine that staged the photo of her sitting in the front seat looking out the window that would come to be iconic.

Averill: Unfortunately, court decisions did not end public hostility or segregation. During and immediately after the boycott, in addition to the bombings already mentioned, four Black churches were bombed, snipers fired at buses, shots were fired at MLKs home. It took ten more years before Montgomery desegregated its schools and other public areas.

Elizabeth: The Parks family continued to struggle financially, faced violent threats on a daily basis, and because of Parks’ public image as the “mother” of the movement, some people in the civil rights movement began to express resentment towards her. In August 1957, the Parks family, including Rosa’s mother, moved to Detroit.

Averill: Parks called Detroit “the northern promised land that wasn’t,” Parks saw that racism in Detroit was “almost as widespread as Montgomery.”[22] The Parks family still struggled financially and Rosa and Raymond had a hard time finding steady work. Rosa eventually found a seamstress job at a small shop in Detroit, and for seven years, 1958 to 1965, worked while accepting invitations to speak around the country and receiving awards, including honorary membership in the recently formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference. However, her extraordinary renown did not benefit her family financially.

Elizabeth: In 1963, she joined Martin Luther King at the front of Detroit’s Great March to Freedom, held weeks before the March on Washington. In 1964, she volunteered for John Conyers political campaign, a young upstart civil rights lawyer who ran on a jobs, justice, and peace platform. Conyers, like Parks, was an early opponent of the war in Vietnam and was very pro-labor. Parks convinced Martin Luther King to come to Detroit on Conyers behalf. Largely because of King’s support, Conyers won the election. From then on Parks worked for him as a secretary and receptionist. Parks also continued her activism and maintained a busy travel schedule where she made appearances and gave speeches at numerous events.

Averill: In February 1965, a night demonstration for voting rights at the Marion, Alabama, courthouse turned violent. State troopers clubbed marchers and beat and shot a 26-year-old African-American man named Jimmie Lee Jackson, who later died. Jackson had been trying to register to vote. His death spurred the fight for civil rights in Selma, Alabama. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) scheduled a protest march. On March 7, 1965, the nation watched as protesters attempted to march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery to bring awareness to the disenfranchisement of most of the millions of African Americans across the south. At the Edmund Pettis bridge marchers were met with a wall of state troopers and county posse men. Earlier the county sheriff had issued an order for all white men in the county over the age of twenty-one to report to the courthouse that morning to be deputized. Governor George Wallace had told law enforcement to “use whatever measures are necessary to prevent a march.”[23]

Elizabeth: Law enforcement attacked the unarmed marchers with tear gas and nightsticks. Images of marches left beaten and bloodied were televised to a national and international audience, which raised support for the Selma Voting Rights Campaign. One of the organizers of the march, Amelia Boynton, was beaten unconscious. A photograph of her lying on the road of the Edmund Pettus Bridge appeared on the front page of newspapers and news magazines around the world. John Lewis of SNCC, who later became a House Representative for Georgia’s fifth congressional district, suffered a skull fracture and bore scars on his head from the incident for the rest of his life. In all, 17 marchers were hospitalized and 50 treated for lesser injuries. The day soon became known as “Bloody Sunday” within the black community.

Averill: After the march, President Johnson issued an immediate statement “deploring the brutality with which a number of Negro citizens of Alabama were treated.” He also promised to send a voting rights bill to Congress. Two days after Bloody Sunday, 2,500 marchers walked out onto the Edmund Pettis Bridge, held a short prayer session, and led by Martin Luther King Jr., turned around and headed back the way they came. That night four KKK members beat three white Unitarian Universalist ministers who were in Selma for the march. One, Reverend James Reeb from Boston died in the hospital from his wounds.

Elizabeth: Organizers of the Selma Voting Rights Campaign issued a call for citizens from across the country to join them. Rosa Parks heard the call and returned to Alabama to join the marches. However, according to Theoharis, “many of the younger organizers did not know her, and because she was not given an official jacket, the police kept pulling her out and making her stand on the sidelines.

A number of the whites in the crowd did recognize her, yelling, ‘You’ll get yours, Rosa.’”[24]

Averill: Another woman who headed the call to come to Alabama was Detroit activist Viola Liuzzo, a white mother of five, part-time student, and member of the NAACP. She contacted the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who took her on and tasked her with delivering aid to various locations, welcoming and recruiting volunteers and transporting volunteers and marchers to and from airports, bus terminals, and train stations, for which she volunteered the use of her car, a 1963 Oldsmobile. After the third march concluded on March 25, Liuzzo, assisted by Leroy Moton, a 19-year-old African American, was killed by members of the Klan (including an FBI informant) as she drove marchers home.[25]

Elizabeth: Upon returning to Detroit, Parks was incensed to hear of her fellow Detroiters murder and fueled her activism in the Women’s Public Affairs Committee in Detroit.

Averill: Parks’ activism continued throughout the rest of her life. During the 1960s she saw no conflict in her admiration for leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. She read all about X’s politics and said he “..reminded me somewhat of my grandfather. He was full of conviction and pride in his race . . . .The way he stood up and voiced himself showed that he was a man to be respected.”[26]

Elizabeth: She even told an interviewer that although she understood the calculated advantages of nonviolence as a political tactic she admitted that it was “hard to say that she was completely converted to it,” saying “as far back as I remember, I could never think in terms of accepting physical abuse without some form of retaliation if possible.”[27] In fact, after riots in Detroit that followed a police raid at a Black-owned bar resulted in death and destruction, Parks did not view the rioters protests as that much different than her own. She said, “I would associate the activity of the burning and looting, and so on, with what I had done and would have done…I guess for whatever reasons it came about, I felt that something had to be wrong with the system.”[28]

Averill: Parks wasn’t the docile seamstress that she is portrayed as, but a woman staring injustices square in the face. Continuing in her commitment to criminal justice issues that she began with back with the Recy Taylor case, Parks organized on behalf of Joanne Little in the 1970s. Little was charged with murder when she defended herself against the sexual assault of her jailer Clarence Alligood by killing him with an ice pick and escaping from her jail cell. The Detroit branch of the Joan Little Legal Defense committee made it clear that women, no matter the circumstances, had a right to defend themselves against sexual violence.[29]

Elizabeth: Parks also worked to free Gary Tyler, a sixteen-year-old black teenager who was wrongfully convicted of killing a thirteen-year-old white boy. In 1974 Destrehan High School in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana was desegregating its school. Did you catch that date? 1974. Twenty years after Brown v Board. Black students were bussed to the school to achieve desegregation. Upon leaving the school to go home, the bus carrying the Black children was ambushed by a mob of roughly 200 white people. A thirteen-year-old boy standing in the mob was shot and killed. Police boarded the bus and pulled Tyler off for allegedly shooting a boy outside the bus, even though no gun was found on the bus. Rosa Parks organized activists in Detroit on behalf of Gary Tyler and gave the keynote address at a packed meeting in Detroit in June 1976. Tyler, who was initially given the death penalty but had his sentence commuted to life in prison in 1977, was not freed from jail until 2016 even though human rights organizations had been advocating for him for years.   

Averill: In 1987, Parks founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, which in a way was like an urban Highlander school. The institute strove to build leadership among Detroit’s young people, teach black history, and engage young people in the struggle for civil rights.

Elizabeth: In 1999, Parks received a Congressional Gold Medal and even before her death, began to lauded as a saint-like figure. Her biographer, Douglas Brinkley, wrote, “Now that Rosa Parks’ body was too feeble to march and her voice had faded to a whisper, politicians lauded her as a patriotic icon. She had grown . . . safe to exalt.”[30]

Averill: Upon her death in 2005, politicians from both sides of the aisle raced to honor Parks, not as a radical activist, but as a quiet but proud woman who did one brave act in the past. Theoharis says it best: “Stripping Rosa Parks of her radicalism while celebrating her as the mother of the civil rights movement became part of a larger move to deradicalize the legacy of the movement itself. While many of the eulogies sought to put Parks’ protest firmly in the past, Parks herself had continued to insist on the persistent need for racial justice in the present.”[31]

Elizabeth: This is a phenomenon that scholar Vincent Gordon Harding explored in relation to our collective memory about MLK too. How MLK has been shrunk down to a man with a dream, someone who advocated for a problem that’s in our past. Even Rosa Parks pushed back on MLKs memorialization, stating that MLK “was more than a dreamer. He was an activist who believed in acting as well as speaking out against oppression.” Poet Carl Wendell Hines wrote a poem about MLKs memorialization that so encapsulates this I think we have to read it.

Now that he is safely dead

Let us praise him

Build monuments to his glory

Sing hosannas to his name.

Dead men make

Such convenient heroes; They

Cannot rise

To challenge the images

We would fashion from their lives.

And besides,

It is easier to build monuments

Than to make a better world.[32]

Elizabeth: And this is where in my classes I will show the image of the bronze statue in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. And then I put the image side by side with Parks’ mugshot from her arrest, where she’s looking quiet differently. To me, and of course this is my opinion, she looks like a real person in her mugshot. She’s got a slight grin on her lips and she looks directly into the camera, almost saying I dare you to try to break me. I mean she looks like someone that I want to know, she’s got a spark to her. The mugshot juxtaposed against this statue in the capitol just sums up all the ways that our collective memory flattens this really interesting woman into a safe and simple icon.  

Averill: Thanks for listening. Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter @dig_history. If you’re looking to bedazzle yourself in some epic Dig swag, visit our Tee Public store! Teachers – we’ve got a whole section of our website dedicated to Resources for Educators. Ideas for how to use podcasts in the classroom broadly, and specific assignment examples linked to particular episodes. Lots of ideas to help you incorporate your favorite history podcast in your classroom. Find the link to our Swag store, the Resources for Educators page, as well as transcripts and bibliographies for all of our episodes, at


[1] “Rosa Parks Statue,” Architect of the Capitol website, accessed Dec. 4, 2021. <>

[2] Vincent Gordon Harding, “Beyond Amnesia: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Future of America,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 74, No. 2 (Sep., 1987): 468-476.

[3] Jeanne Theoharis, “’A Life History of Being Rebellious’: The Radicalism of Rosa Parks,” in Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, ed. Jeanne Theoharis (New York University Press, 2009), 115.

[4] Michael Jonofsky, “Thousands Gather at the Capitol to Remember a Hero,” New York Times, October 31, 2005;  Theoharis, “A Life History,” 115.

[5] “Alabama State Teachers College Laboratory School Building,” Museum of Education, <accessed Dec. 3, 2021>

[6] Quoted in Danielle McGuire, 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 (New York: Vintage Books, 2011), 15.

[7] Quoted in McGuire, 29.

[8] McGuire, 46-47.

[9] Quoted in Theoharis, “A Life History of Being Rebellious,” 120.

[10] Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (Harper & Row: 2009), 32.

[11] Rosa Parks, My Story (New York: Dial Books, 1992), 124; Quoted in Theoharis, 121.

[12] Jeanne Theoharis, “Highlander Folk School and the criminalization of organizing,” The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks website, accessed Dec. 3, 2021. <>

[13] Quoted in Theoharis, “A Life History of Being Rebellious,” 123.

[14] “Interview with Rosa Parks,” Interview for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965), interview date November 14, 1985. <;cc=eop;rgn=main;view=text;idno=par0015.0895.080>

[15] “Park’s Stance,” The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks website, accessed Dec. 3, 2021. <>

[16] Jean Byers, A Study of the Negro in Military Service (Washington: Department of Defense: 1950), 199, 67.

[17] Barnett, 174.

[18] Theoharis, “A Life History of Being Rebellious,” 125.

[19] Quoted in Theoharis, “A Life History of Being Rebellious,” 125.

[20] Bernice McNair Barnett, “Invisible Southern Black Women Leaders in the Civil Rights Movement: The Triple Constraints of Gender, Race, and Class.” Gender and Society 7, (1993):162-82.

[21] Robert J. Walker, Let My People Go! The Miracle of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books: 2007).

[22] Theoharis, “A Life History of Being Rebellious,” 128.

[23] “1965 Dr. King and 270 Marchers Arrested (Selma),” Civil Rights Heritage Museum Online, accessed Dec. 4, 2021. <>

[24] Theoharis, “A Life History of Being Rebellious,” 129.

[25] Mary Stanton, From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo (Uni. Of Georgia Press, 2000).

[26] Theoharis, “A Life History of Being Rebellious,” 130.

[27] Quoted in Theoharis, “A Life History of Being Rebellious,” 130.

[28] Quoted in Theoharis, “A Life History of Being Rebellious,” 131.

[29] McGuire, 262.

[30] Douglas Brinkley, Rosa Parks: A Life (New York: Penguin, 2000), 226.

[31] Theoharis, “A Life History of Being Rebellious,” 34.

[32] Carl Wendell Hines, reprinted in Vincent Gordon Harding, “Beyond Amnesia: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Future of America,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 74, No. 2 (Sep., 1987): 468-476.


Jeanne Theoharis, “’A Life History of Being Rebellious’: The Radicalism of Rosa Parks,” in Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, ed. Jeanne Theoharis (New York University Press, 2009)

Vincent Gordon Harding, “Beyond Amnesia: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Future of America,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 74, No. 2 (Sep., 1987): 468-476.

Mary Stanton, From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo (Uni. Of Georgia Press, 2000).

Danielle McGuire, 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 (New York: Vintage Books, 2011)

Robert J. Walker, Let My People Go! The Miracle of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books: 2007).

Bernice McNair Barnett, “Invisible Southern Black Women Leaders in the Civil Rights Movement: The Triple Constraints of Gender, Race, and Class.” Gender and Society 7, (1993):162-82.


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