Los Angeles, 1 December 2019: 64th anniversary of the rebellion of Rosa Parks
(Fourth in an occasional series that will run for several months on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Also, one in the series: The Fact of Being Black: History, Culture, Politics.)
It was December 1, 1955, around 6 o’clock in the evening. Rosa Parks boarded a bus belonging to the Montgomery City Lines, paid her fare, and sat in the first seat in the section of the bus reserved for colored people. The first ten rows, towards the front of the bus, could only be occupied by white people: such were the strict laws of segregation that governed the South. As the bus moved on, and other passengers boarded the bus at subsequent stops, it gradually filled up. All the seats were taken; eventually a few white people found themselves standing, according to some sources. The driver, James F. Blake, halted the bus and moved the sign demarcating the “colored” section to the row behind Ms. Parks. He ordered her and the three other black passengers seated in that row, two on each side of the aisle, to vacate their seats and move to the back of the bus. One of the more prominent historians of the Civil Rights Movement, Taylor Branch, has offered a somewhat different if related account: apparently only one white man was standing, but nevertheless Blake, acting according to the city bus code, which forbid colored and white people from being seated in the same row, had perforce to ask all four black passengers to remove themselves. Parks resisted, and felt, naturally—oh, not so naturally, said the master race—that she had every right to remain seated. She had as much right to that seat as anyone else—white, black, colored, or American Indian (and Parks, though this is seldom discussed, had a good deal of Cherokee blood in her).
Blake would have nothing of this, if only because, as he argued in his defense the rest of his life, he was determined to uphold the city bus code and follow company policy. When he passed away in 2002, just a little shy of his 90th birthday, the newspaper obituaries related ‘his side’ of the story. In an interview given to the Washington Post, Blake recalled: “I called the company first, just like I was supposed to do.” Blake parked the bus, found a pay phone, and got his supervisor on the line. “Did you warn her, Jim?” When Blake replied in the affirmative, his supervisor said: “Well then, Jim, you do it, you got to exercise your powers and put her off, hear?” “And that’s just what I did”, recalled Blake. Rosa Parks had been warned. The police were summoned: Parks was forcibly removed, arrested, and hauled off to the city jail.
In the late 19th century, only days after he had arrived in Natal, barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was thrown off a train since he refused to give up his first-class seat. He thereby came to an awareness of racism and, on the conventional account, this event would set him on the long road that would lead to his transformation from Mohandas to the Mahatma of world fame. What was traumatic for Gandhi would become catastrophic for the British Empire. Rosa Parks’ ejection from a city bus has, in many narratives of the Civil Rights Movement, occupied something of a similar place. Parks, unlike the young Gandhi that evening of 7 June 1893, was however something of a veteran civil rights activist at the time of her arrest. That was not the impression conveyed by the popular accounts of the life of Rosa Parks which came to my attention in my school years, in which she was represented as a seamstress. It was only much later that I became acquainted with her long association with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP). Parks was also involved in the Voters’ League and, just months before the infamous incident of 1 December 1955, had spent two weeks at the Highlander Folk School, a social justice training center in Monteagle, Tennessee. Her arrival there that summer might have quite fortuitous; as the late Professors Suzanne Hoeber Rudolph and Lloyd Rudolph explained in a letter written to the New York Times on 25 April 2013, “Parks’s refusal to yield her seat to a white man, in defiance of a city segregation ordinance, was a self-conscious and deliberate act of Gandhian civil disobedience. She had learned about Gandhi and was trained in Gandhian techniques at the school, where Ram Manohar Lohia, the Gandhian socialist, had introduced them.” Lohia was on a visit to the US that summer and had been called to share his expertise with activists.
Parks’ activism, and her long involvement with social justice issues, explains in part why her act of defiance would eventually produce an outcome unlike any in the past. We are better positioned to understand, in other words, how it is that only three days after her arrest, a decision had been taken by a number of black leaders to launch a boycott of Montgomery city buses. The Montgomery Bus Boycott would catapult the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on to the national, and shortly thereafter, the world stage. Many others previous to Rosa Parks had sought to defy segregation codes on buses, but they did not become one of the many public faces of the movement. Pauli Murray, one of two black women who were arrested outside Petersburg, Virginia, in 1940 for defying segregations laws as they traveled on a bus, comes to mind. Murray, much like Parks, had at least a fleeting acquaintance with Gandhi’s ideas. By her own admission years later, her knowledge of satyagraha was “sketchy” and yet she and her companion “applied” what they “knew of satyagraha on the spot.” She was of the same mind as Bayard Rustin, who had made a detailed study of Gandhi and was by the early 1940s already applying his ideas in an attempt to break down the segregation that informed every aspect of life in the US, when she wrote that “pacifism believes that the means must be suited to the ends to be attained and that war is irreconcilably unsuited to the attainment of democracy.” Murray worked assiduously towards the creation of what she called an “American Satyagraha Movement”, and in 1943-44 led Howard University students in Washington DC in picketing two restaurants that denied service to black patrons.
There are yet others, many of them women and no less brave than Rosa Parks and Pauli Murray, who went into near obscurity and whose stories have only surfaced in recent years. As we pause to remember Rosa Parks, it is well to reflect on the fact that fame and obscurity are often equally matters of happenstance. White women, in particular, have been largely written out of the Civil Rights Movement, but they were also lending their voices to the narrative. Juliette Hampton Morgan, a librarian in the Montgomery Public Library system, used to ride the city buses where she frequently witnessed the gross mistreatment of black passengers. It seems that Morgan, a Christian who was intensely disturbed by the racism that she encountered in everyday life and could not reconcile this racism to her faith, commenced interracial prayer meetings with black women. I wonder if, in this respect, she may have been inspired by the public prayer meeting that Gandhi had pioneered. A future biographer of Morgan will perhaps shed some light on this subject. But, more germane to the present argument, Morgan was an inveterate letter writer and wrote frequently to newspapers to express her outrage at the city’s segregation statutes. Eleven days after Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1st, the Montgomery Advertiser published a remarkable letter from Morgan. Likening the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which brought King to the attention of America, to the Dandi March, Morgan gave it as her opinion that the “Negroes of Montgomery seem to have taken a lesson from Gandhi . . . Their own task is greater than Gandhi’s, however, for they have greater prejudice to overcome.”
Morgan’s approbation of the “quiet dignity, discipline and dedication with which the Negroes have conducted their boycott” earned her the notoriety of many of Montgomery’s white citizens. In January 1957, the editor of the Tuscaloosa News, Buford Boone, came to Montgomery and spoke forcefully against the racism and violence directed at the black community. Our “‘Southern way of life’ must inevitably change”, wrote Morgan in appreciation, adding that Boone had shown the courage “to stand alone, to walk out naked as it were”: “I had begun to wonder if there were any men in the state – any white men – with . . . any good will, and most especially the moral courage to express it.” She started receiving hate mail and obscene phone calls. On a spring day in 1957, a cross was burned in the front yard of her home in one of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods. On July 17, Morgan’s mother found Juliette dead, an empty bottle of sleeping pills by her bedside with a suicide note: “I am not going to cause any more trouble to anybody.” Morgan’s life is, putting it plainly, a testament to the courage of common people. She stands forth as a striking exemplification of what, following Gandhi, we can call the extraordinariness of the ordinary.