Rosa Parks

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Feb 25 07:25:34 MST 2002

Last night CBS aired the life story of Rosa Parks, the African-American who
refused to give up her seat to a white in Montgomery in 1955. Her arrest
triggered a bus boycott that was led by a young minister who had just
arrived there, Martin Luther King Jr. It was a cut above the usual fare
with a script based on Douglas Brinkley's recent biography and directed by
Julie Dash, an African-American who has made some interesting films,
including "Daughters of the Dust".

The central personal drama revolved around her relationship to her husband,
Raymond, who is depicted as somebody fed up with white racism but too
cynical to do anything about it, except for selling copies of "The
Defender" in his barber shop or quoting poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Rosa,
who is seen as a demure country girl, might be less outspoken but she has
no trouble getting involved with activism. After being introduced to the
local NAACP, she agrees to head up the youth council.

Interestingly enough, the film depicts what actually took place on that
fateful evening in December, 1955. Although many have the impression that
Parks sat in the white only section of the bus as an act of civil
disobedience, nothing like that happened at all. Instead, she had taken a
seat--as normal--in the rear of the bus reserved for "colored". But when
all the white seats had been filled up, the driver asked her to give up her
seat to a white person. She refused and the rest was history.

What's missing from the film, as one might expect, is the social history of
the civil rights movement that has crucial links to the organized labor
movement and the left, particularly the CP, of the 1930s. For example,
although M. L. King Jr. is seen as the key organizer of the boycotts, E.D.
Nixon of the NAACP provided much of the original political and logistical
input. This is clearly the kind of thing he learned in the Brotherhood of
Railway Porters, the black trade union that had a social as well as an
economic agenda. Furthermore, although the film introduces us to Clifford
Durr, the white patrician Alabaman who served as counsel to the NAACP and
defended Parks, we have no sense of where he came from. In fact, Durr was a
left New Deal figure who if not a member of the CP was clearly part of the
broad milieu around the party.

To fill in some of this background, I recommend a look at the American
Socialist article by Al Maund who is still alive and in his 90s in New

American Socialist, April 1956

[Louis Proyect: The ties between the New Deal left and union movements and
the burgeoning civil rights movement has yet to be told in the detail it
deserves. This article from American Socialist is a step in that direction.
Written by novelist Al Maund , author of ‘The Boxcar,’ who is still alive
and in his nineties, he is only described as ‘a prominent Southern
journalist and participant in the new movement of the Negro people.’ This
is understandable since he had just be fired from a college teaching job
for writing a pro-civil rights article in the Nation magazine under his own
name. It features an interview with E.D. Nixon, the chair of the local
NAACP who bailed Rosa Parks out of jail and recruited Martin Luther King
Jr. to the struggle. Nixon was a close associate of white attorney Clifford
Durr, a New Deal braintruster who sponsored the Highlander Folk School in
Tennessee, where Parks spent some time being trained as an organizer. After
Maund was fired, he went to work as a copy editor at Durr's newspaper. When
Durr couldn't make a kick-off meeting for the Montgomery bus boycotts, he
sent Maund in his place. The Highlander school, which was founded in 1932
and modeled after the Danish folk schools, quickly became a crucial center
for young organizers in the south, according to Michael Denning in ‘The
Cultural Front’. In addition to Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer and Stokely
Carmichael also received training at the school.] 

Walking their Way to Freedom 
by A Special Correspondent 

Montgomery— How does one account for the boycott of city buses carried on
for four months by the 40,000 Negro residents of Montgomery, Alabama?
Although ‘the Cradle Confederacy’ has grown in recent years. nothing makes
it seem other than a sleepy Southern town. No new industries have altered
its landscape; it leeches off two air-force bases near the city limits. A
venerable family controls the political strings; Negro voters number a
pitiful 1,600. The Shinto worship of ancestors as in no other place in the
region, except perhaps  S. C., and the Negro community bears the surnames
of white aristocracy—symbolizing a racial relation that remained
substantially unaltered from slavery days. 

Then what happened? Was the boycott an NAACP ‘plot’? Although virtually all
of the boycott spokesmen are NAACP members, one has said that the
organization ‘looked down’ on the protest at its outset because it did seek
integration. The boycotters’ original main demand drafted at a mass meeting
the night of December for racial division of passengers on a first-come,
first-serve basis. This is the arrangement in effect in most cities. 

Two decades of mistreatment provided the fodder for the protest. Every
Negro who boarded a bus stood a good chance of being abused. Drivers, under
cover of enforcing segregation statutes, constantly yanked up Negro
passengers to provide seats for late-coming whites. They passed by Negroes
waiting at stops. Negroes were required to pay at the front door and then
get on at the rear, so that drivers sometimes took their fares and drove
off without them. Drivers even carried pistols in their cash boxes to
‘settle’ disputes over change and transfers. Year after year delegations of
Negroes called on city and transit-line officials, asking better treatment.
They received nothing, not even a courteous audience, because the white
fathers thought that the bulk of the Negro population was hopelessly
dependent on transit service. ‘You would think that since we were their
best customers, they’d try to please us a little,’ a Negro stenographer
commented bitterly. ‘But they wanted it easy. They wanted our money and
wanted to beat on us, too. I have just put them out of my mind. I can keep
walking forever.’ 

THE incident that touched off things happened simply and spontaneously. It
was not a test case. On the night of December 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks, a
seamstress at a Montgomery department store, was returning home from work.
She boarded the bus that would take her to the public-housing project where
she lived. She was carrying a sack of groceries, bursitis racked her
shoulders, and she was dead-tired. She sat near the front of the Negro
section. After a few minutes she heard the driver order her to move to the
back—where there were no seats vacant. She looked up and saw a white man
waiting to claim her place. She didn’t move. The driver again called out.
She still didn’t move. The driver then stopped the bus, announcing that he
was going for the police. For thirty minutes the passengers remained in the
halted vehicle. No one got out, no one—white or Negro—spoke to her. ‘It was
the longest time of my life,’ Mrs. Parks recalls. The police came and she
was booked for violating the segregation ordinance—although the law
specifically states that the driver can only reassign passengers if there
are other seats available. 


Louis Proyect
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