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Today, We Honor Rosa Parks and the Unknown that Fight for Civil Rights

Posted Dec 01 2010 12:00am
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Photo:   Attribution Some rights reserved by  resedabear December 1, 1955, Rosa refused to move to the back of the bus.

December 1, 1955, Rosa refused to move to the back of the bus.

55 years ago, a tired seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama challenged racial segregation in the United States.  Rosa Parks has always been one of my heroes, ever since I wrote my high school senior thesis on how this woman became a catalyst for change.  Today, we honor Rosa Parks!

The story is well-known to us all. Rosa refused to sit in the back of the bus, as segregation laws dictated.  I had always assumed her actions were initiated when she first chose her seat on the bus, but history explains it a little differently.   Scholastic explains:

The bus continues along its route. After several more stops the bus is full. The driver notices that all the seats in the “Whites Only” section are now taken, and that more white people have just climbed aboard. He orders the people in Mrs. Parks’s row to move to the back of the bus, where there are no open seats. No one budges at first. But when the driver barks at the black passengers a second time, they all get up. . . except for Rosa Parks.

Her subsequent arrest sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Rosa is often soley credited as the one that started it all, as I have done above.  She has been accused of being a “ mythic ” icon and a communist.  Conspiracists cite that she had already been working for the NAACP for over a decade before that infamous bus ride and point to the staged photograph on the bus as evidence the event was not happenstance.

Does any of this slander matter?  Not to me.  Who cares whether she acted alone or not.  Obviously without the support of the NAACP, her actions would not have turned into one of the finest examples of civil disobedience.   Teaching Tolerance summarizes it well:

This week marks the  55th anniversary of that famous boycott . So this is a good time to reflect that change rarely comes by an isolated act. In fact, about a year before Rosa Parks exercised her life-changing defiance, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith each  made a similar stand in Montgomery . Other people in Montgomery, like  Juliette Hampton Morgan , were already speaking out forcefully against segregation in the South.

I admit, I don’t know these people’s names, and I wish I did.  In fact, it was the other bus defiers, like Colvin , whose arrests were actually used in the federal case that declared segregation practices by Montgomery’s buses unconstitutional, not Rosa’s.   Rosa Parks Facts explains:

As useful as  Rosa Parks ‘ case was in providing them with a valid reason for an uprising in the  civil rights movement , it was decided that it would not make ideal case law because of the criminal status of her case. The end result might simply be the dismissal of her case, not the change in law that they hoped for.

Teaching Tolerance continues:

Rosa Parks’ civil disobedience on a bus in 1955 was unquestionably the event that galvanized the African American activist community into organizing a successful boycott of the Montgomery City bus system.

But the incident described above could be the story of a number of brave, mostly unheralded African America women in Montgomery who refused to yield their bus seats to White patrons months before Rosa Parks’ actions on December 1, 1955.

It was four women in particular Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith who served as plaintiffs in the legal action challenging Montgomery’s segregated public transportation system.

It was their case  Browder v. Gayle that a district court and, eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court would use to strike down segregation on buses.

55 years ago, Rosa reminded citizens of the US that we needed to change things drastically in order to live up to our ideals of all people created equal.  I don’t care if she was chosen because her “character was unimpeachable”.  She’s still my hero.

Teaching Tolerance reminds us:

…transportation continues to be a civil rights issue. Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of PolicyLink, says that cuts in urban transit agencies are disproportionately hurting African-American and Latino communities. Following a meeting on infrastructure last month with President Barack Obama, Blackwell told  Streetsblog Capitol Hill :

“Nearly 25 percent of African Americans are without a car, and almost as many Latinos,” she said. “So public transportation is very important in these communities, and it is under severe threat right now in the nation. In 110 cities, or more, public transit routes are at risk, and these are the routes residents use to take their children to school, to go to work, to go shopping.”

How can we honor Rosa?  We can tell our children her story, as well as those that came before her.  We can illuminate inequalities current in our society.  We can remember there are countless people whose names we do not know who have fought for civil rights.  We can inspire our children to work for social justice.

You may be wondering what social justice has to do with raising an environmentally responsible child.  Not only are racial inequalities evident in issues such as transportation, but often poor minority communities are victims of toxic factories and contamination.  You can’t be environmentally conscious and ignore social inequalities that result from detrimental practices (including cheap, toxic, plastic toys).  The environment may not be the focus of Rosa’s activism, but she is a role model for our children.

Our children need heroes.

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