Revisiting Rosa Parks: Remembering Her Activism

This is the first in a series of entries from the UMass community celebrating Black History Month. In 2014, has the meaning of this celebration changed? Who and what do we remember during Black History Month, and who and what do we forget? Come explore the political, social, academic, and personal meanings of Black History Month!

Marwa Amer, Ph.D. Student, Department of History

National Black Political Convention, March 10–12, 1972, Gary Indiana
Photo courtesy of LeRoy W. Henderson

Today, February 4, 2014, would have been Rosa Parks’s 101st birthday. Last year, as part of the centennial celebration for her birthday, Mrs. Parks was honored with a commemorative stamp, part of the Black Heritage Series issued by the United States Postal Service. A few weeks later President Obama and a bipartisan contingent of Congressional leaders, again, paid tribute to Parks, unveiling a statue of her at the Capitol. The honors bestowed on Parks over the last year invoked her bus stand on December 5, 1955, yet did so largely as an exercise in national self-congratulation and a demonstration of American pride and pageantry. “What a story, what a legacy, what a country!” Senator Mitch McConnell exalted at the conclusion of his remarks. “What a great way to celebrate Black History Month, what a great to celebrate America,” House Speaker John Boehner commented in the lead up to unveiling of the statue.

A similar commemoration took place a few months later at the end of August, on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington: For Jobs and Freedom. In a speech that paid tribute to the everyday people who participated in the March, President Barack Obama dismissed naysayers who argued “little has changed,” for dishonoring the courage and sacrifice of those who participated in the movement. Obama urged listeners to “recall that day itself also belonged to those ordinary people whose names never appeared in the history books.” Obama concluded by drawing on the language of personal responsibility to chronicle the demise of the civil rights movement, “The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior.” In Obama’s rendition of the black freedom struggle, the transformative power of non-violence was tragically cut short by the onset of calls for black power and self-defense. “All of that history is how progress stalled. That’s how hope was diverted.”

References to the legacy of Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement remain a key feature of Obama’s political posturing. Yet his nod to the importance of history and the struggle for social changes is at odds with Parks’s belief in the liberating potential of Black History and long standing political work to ensure it was taught to young people. In February 1987, over fifty years after Mrs. Parks began her activist work, she founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development in Detroit, Michigan. The institute, which still exists today under the leadership of cofounder Elaine Steele, offers a variety of community, political, and educational programs and resources for youth in Detroit, which stress the importance of Black History and pride.

Mrs. Parks had long wanted to found an organization to help young people. Through the 1940s and 1950s, Parks mentored African American youth, as the advisor to the Youth Council for the Montgomery branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P). Mrs. Parks organized social and political events for the youth members, and directly challenged segregation in Montgomery. One cause the Youth Council took up was protesting segregation at the main library branch. Under Parks’s leadership, the Youth Council requested service from the main library branch, reserved for whites only.

Rosa Parks’s bus stand in 1955 made her a celebrity, especially among young people, but this was certainly not the end of her activism. Shortly after the boycott Parks and her family moved to Detroit, Michigan, where she lived the remainder of her life. In the years after the boycott Parks struggled to find work. Her health suffered from the stress and the constant harassment and death threats, yet she continued to mentor young people. Parks often visited schools during Black History Week, simply to speak to students about her role in the boycott and the movement. During the 1979-1980 school year Mrs. Parks visited the Oakland Community School (OCS), an elementary school run by the Black Panther Party. The students put on a play written in her honor that included her bus stand. Her work with young people often refreshed her spirits. As biographer Jeanne Theoharis explains in The Rebellious life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, she talked about her visit to the OCS for weeks after.

Following an education for liberation model, similar to the one implemented by the Black Panther Party in the Oakland Community School, The Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute stressed the importance of learning Black History as a social justice tool for political liberation. In her autobiography My Story, Parks expressed her plan for the center: “I envision the institute as a community-center environment that will offer programs for youth to help them continue their education and have hope for the future.” The Pathways to Freedom Program sponsored by the institute offered an opportunity for students to do research on anything from the Underground Railroad to the civil rights movement. The institute echoed Parks’s political spirit, fostered political awareness, and acted as a citizenship school of sorts for Detroit youth. Parks explained, “I would like them to have the same sense of hope, dignity, and pride, that was installed in me by my family and teachers.”

Photo courtesy of Donald Cunningham

Relevant links:

Rosa & Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development

“A Fuller Tribute to Rosa Parks,” by Jeanne Theoharis

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