Today marks the posthumous death anniversary of Rosa Parks, considered the ‘Mother of Civil Rights.’ Her defiance on Montgomery Bus ordinance on December 1, 1957, against the obnoxious segregation law that treated African Americans as second-class citizens in the United States changed the face of America by breaking constitutionally, the racial law that ate deep into the American society. EMEKA CHIAGHANAM writes:
SHE was the transformational vehicle that orchestrated the mass movement for African American’s liberation in deeply segregated America of the last century.
Remember the Martin Luther King Jr, ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, which was delivered when African Americans didn’t enjoy the rights they have today. Before King’s speech for a better and united America on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C, on August 28, 1963,
somewhere in Montgomery, Alabama, a relatively unknown, fragile looking, but strong in character lady, had dreamt of equal rights. Her action actually pushed Martin Luther King Jr. into the national spotlight and launched the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Long before the United Nations declared 21 March of every year as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Rosa Parks, the woman whose courage changed the lives of millions of African-Americans had resolved that within her. Her resistance in the face of dehumanising laws took a front seat in the place of history.
Before the mid 20th century, the United States remained highly segregated with policies devised to disenfranchise and segregated African Americans in a country acclaimed as owned by impartial God. Living the United States prior to 1960s, was akin to later day apartheid in South Africa.
Jim Crow was a derogatory term for African Americans; the laws permeated every facet of Uncle Sam’s country until it began to wither away in 1956. Though the word apartheid came into South Africa consciousness in 1948, with its official declaration. It has existed long before then, and abolished some 40 years after similar law was abolished in United States.
On December 1, 1955, the city of Montgomery had no inkling that it was going to change the face of America forever. Montgomery is the capital city of the U.S. State of Alabama. Prior to European colonisation of the city and its adjoining areas, the Alibamu and Coushatta tribes of Native American originally inhabited the place.
That Thursday morning, relatively unknown Rosa Parks, after work at a Montgomery department store, where she worked as a seamstress, boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus for home, and sat almost at the centre in a seat not reserved for white passengers.
When the bus stopped to pick up passengers, she and four other African-American men were asked to give up their seats and move backward, the men complied; Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.
Parks was involved in the local National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), as secretary. NAACP was the oldest and largest U.S. civil rights organisation. A small group of activists founded it in 1909 to secure political, educational, social, and economic equality for African Americans. She became a secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in 1943, at a time the position was considered a woman’s job.
For commuters in Montgomery, anyone can board a bus, however, the law forbade mixed race composition. The Montgomery City had passed a city ordinance that segregated bus passengers by race. The law empowered bus operators to assign seats to achieve that goal. Every Montgomery bus had “colored” sections for African Americans generally in the rear of the bus, even with African Americans who composed more than 75 per cent of the ridership,
The first four rows of seats on each Montgomery bus were reserved for whites. The law requires that no passenger moves or gives up his or her seat, stand if the bus was crowded and no other seats were available but over time, Montgomery bus drivers had adopted the practice of requiring black riders to move when there were no white-only seats.
Except for the first four rows, other sections were determined by the placement of a movable sign and this was at the will of the driver. The driver could decide to place the movable sign from the middle rows which had African Americans to the rear if more whites needed seats. If white people were already sitting in the front, black people had to board at the front to pay the fare, then disembark and re enter through the rear door.
Many African American passengers had been left stranded as the driver pull off before they could board the bus through the back after paying. And if a white person boarded, there were no free seats, an entire row of African-American passengers would have to stand so that the white passenger could sit.
Racial segregation has come a long way in the United States when the law forbade ownership of their lives to when the long arm of the law dealt with any white who tried to teach any African American how to read and write.
According to the 1847 Virginia Criminal Code: “Any white person who shall assemble with slaves, [or] free negroes . . . for the purpose of instructing them to read or write, . . . shall be punished by confinement in the jail . . . and by fine . . .” Under this law, a former slaveholder, Margaret Douglass, of Norfolk, Virginia, was arrested, imprisoned, and fined when authorities discovered that she was teaching free African American children of Christ’s Church Sunday school to read and write.
The United States had three Constitutional amendments passed to grant newly freed African Americans legal status after the abolition of slavery. The thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, the Fourteenth provided citizenship, and the Fifteenth guaranteed the right to vote.
The Supreme Court, nearly nullified the work of Congress by handing down a series of decisions between 1873 and 1883, in its ruling. In 1896, the Supreme Court upheld Jim Crow when it sanctioned legal separation of the races by its ruling in H.A. Plessy v. J.H. Ferguson, which held that separate but equal facilities did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment.
Parks was arrested and fined $14 for violating Montgomery city ordinance, she refused to pay the fine, and instead appealed to the circuit court, she was not the first of its kind. Earlier in March, 15 year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to allow a white passenger to sit in her seat.
Colvin was charged with assault, disorderly conduct, and violating segregation laws. And in October 18 year-old Mary Louise Smith was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white bus rider. Parks defiance led to what most historians called the beginning of the modern civil rights movement in the United States of America.
Following Parks’s arrest, Professor Joann Robinson, president of the Women’s Political Council (WPC), meets with Montgomery city officials to discuss changes to the bus system. The next day, the WPC launches a one-day bus boycott. Robinson and her WPC rallied around Parks, calling on the African-American community to boycott the bus system of December 5. Almost all members of Montgomery’s African-American community participated.
Robinson later reached out to Martin Luther King Jr, leading to the establishment of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and King was elected president, the organisation votes to extend the boycott. On November 13, the Supreme Court struck down laws legalising racial segregation on buses but MIA will not end the boycott until the desegregation of buses was officially enacted.
On December 20, the Supreme Court delivered injunction against public buses to Montgomery city officials. The following day, Montgomery public buses are desegregated and the MIA ends its boycott.
The incident sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott that lasted 381 days. It was this boycott led by then unknown Baptist Pastor, Martin Luther King Jr that brought him and Rosa Parks to the world’s attention. On November 13, 1956, the United States Supreme Court struck down the Montgomery segregation ordinance, under which Rosa Parks was fined, outlawing racial segregation on public transportation.
In 1957, Rosa and her husband, Raymond, left Montgomery for Hampton, Virginia. In Hampton, she found a job as a hostess in an inn at Hampton Institute. Later that year, moved to Detroit, Michigan, because they couldn’t find a job in Montgomery as result of her action in crumbling the segregation law.
They have been married since 1932. Raymond, a barber by profession was also an active member of the local NAACP. He had encouraged finishing her secondary education when she was on the verge of giving up in 1933, at a time when less than seven per cent of African Americans had a secondary school diploma. Rosa took numerous jobs, ranging from domestic worker to hospital aide and the last as a seamstress before the bus boycott.
Beginning in 1965, she worked as an administrative assistant to Detroit congressman, John Conyers Jr. in 1987, founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development to give career training to Detroit youths. In 1996, Parks was honoured with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the American government can give a civilian.
She recalled in an interview what prompted her action. She said, “I did not want to be mistreated, I did not want to be deprived of a seat that I had paid for. It was just time … there was an opportunity for me to take a stand to express the way I felt about being treated in that manner. I had not planned to get arrested. I had plenty to do without having to end up in jail.
But when I had to face that decision, I didn’t hesitate to do so because I felt that we had endured that too long. The more we gave in, the more we complied with that kind of treatment, the more oppressive it became.”
When she died on October 24, 2005, at the age of 92, her casket was placed in the rotunda of the United States capitol for two days so that Americans could pay their last respects, an honour usually reserved for American Presidents when they die. Recognised as the ‘Mother of Modern Day Civil Rights’ movement in America, Rosa Parks’s life embodied a package of courage.
Rosa Parks’s life embodies that you don’t measure strong will by stature; that inner resolve doesn’t answer to physique. Only a few people could affect a change and in a profound way as Rosa Parks.
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