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Child Watch® Column: "Mrs. Rosa Parks - Before and After the Bus"

Release Date: March 1, 2013

Marian Wright Edelman

“Our minds fasten on that single moment on the bus — Mrs. Parks alone in that seat, clutching her purse, staring out a window, waiting to be arrested. That moment tells us something about how change happens, or doesn’t happen . . . We so often spend our lives as if in a fog, accepting injustice, rationalizing inequity, tolerating the intolerable. Like the bus driver, but also like the passengers on the bus, we see the way things are — children hungry in a land of plenty, entire neighborhoods ravaged by violence, families hobbled by job loss or illness — and we make excuses for inaction, and we say to ourselves, that's not my responsibility, there’s nothing I can do. Rosa Parks tells us there’s always something we can do. She tells us that we all have responsibilities, to ourselves and to one another. She reminds us that this is how change happens — not mainly through the exploits of the famous and the powerful, but through the countless acts of often anonymous courage and kindness and fellow feeling and responsibility that continually, stubbornly, expand our conception of justice — our conception of what is possible.”

President Obama spoke these moving and right words at the February 27 unveiling of the beautiful new statue of Mrs. Rosa Parks in the United States Capitol’s Statuary Hall — the first Black woman so honored. The ceremony also included eloquent remarks from Congressional leaders and a stirring performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by the military choir that was a tribute to this bright North Star to freedom. Mrs. Parks, like Harriet Tubman before her, lit our nation’s way. The President’s words were a needed reminder that Mrs. Parks was just one very bright star in a constellation of sacrificial Black and White stars who pushed and pulled our nation forward on the long stony road of struggle, activism, and sacrifice that began generations before her birth in Tuskegee, Alabama one hundred years ago. So many Americans keep looking for the next Dr. King or Mrs. Parks to come and solve our problems and save us from our own responsibility to act. But Mrs. Parks and Dr. King were always part of a much larger whole. On the particular day in December 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus, she was one of a trained cohort of civil rights leadership in the city who had been putting the community infrastructure in place waiting for the right spark to ignite the needed anti-Jim Crow movement time in Montgomery. Jeanne Theoharis’s new biography The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (and other recent books) is now shedding extra light on the fact that there was much more to Mrs. Parks than the story of the quiet seamstress who one day was just so tired she finally decided to sit down.

In reality, Mrs. Parks was not only a seamstress but a respected local activist; was willing to work without a spotlight but was not meek or quiet; and did not spontaneously act out of the blue just because she felt tired. Mrs. Parks was neither complacent nor long suffering, and had been fighting for equality and justice years before December 1955. In fact, like most Black people raised under Southern segregation, Jim Crow, and injustice, Mrs. Parks resented them from the day she was born.

Before her arrest Mrs. Parks had served as the secretary of the Montgomery branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.) for more than 10 years. As part of her work with the N.A.A.C.P. she investigated cases of violence and sexual assault against Black women, including Recy Taylor, a married Black mother who was walking home from church when she was abducted at gunpoint and gang-raped by a group of six White men in Abbeville, Alabama in 1944. In response, Mrs. Parks helped found the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor which attracted nationwide support and which the Chicago Defender called the “strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade.” Although Mrs. Taylor’s attackers had admitted their guilt to local authorities, they were not convicted of the crime or punished—and Mrs. Parks was not done fighting injustice.

Nor was she alone. In all of her battles before and after her own arrest, Mrs. Parks was part of a coordinated movement of others sharing the same goal. The summer before her arrest she attended Highlander Folk School near Knoxville, Tennessee, a training center for activism in civil rights and workers’ rights. Immediately after her arrest, Mrs. Parks was supported by N.A.A.C.P. colleagues including E.D. Nixon and others in Montgomery actively watching for the right moment to act. Alabama State College professor and Women’s Political Council President Jo Ann Robinson was one of the key unsung heroines who were the backbones of most civil rights struggles who waited and watched for the right incident and opportunity and were prepared to help seize the moment and propel it into a larger movement.

Although many people think of Dr. King as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, it’s important to remember that Dr. King did not found or spark that movement or most campaigns that developed into major movements across the South. He responded to the demands of the communities whose cups boiled over and was able to embody and communicate their hopes and dreams. In fact, when the Montgomery movement began, the community needed someone to be out in front. As the youngest and newest preacher in town, Dr. King was the top candidate because he had the least baggage. So he rose to the occasion and responded to and eloquently articulated the movement already in place. As it happened, the Montgomery Bus Boycott quickly showcased Dr. King’s enormous God-given ability as a leader and spokesperson with enormous courage. But what took place in Montgomery was repeated in Selma, Birmingham, and elsewhere and in the sit-in and Freedom Rider movements: Dr. King did not start those local movements himself either, but used his powerful eloquence and moral voice and willingness to go to jail with local people to amplify those movements already in process led by extraordinary local people like Fred Shuttlesworth in Birmingham and the incredible Black children of Birmingham who stood up to fire hoses and police dogs and filled Birmingham’s jails with child energy, courage, and determination to be free. Photos of these children under attack circulated around the globe led President Kennedy to submit what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to Congress and Birmingham’s White power structure to agree to end Jim Crow in Birmingham’s public facilities.

Today, too many would-be movement leaders simply want to be Dr. King or Mrs. Rosa Parks: they want the glory and privilege of leadership without the burdens or sacrifice and sustained hard work. Movements are not built from the top down by powerful leaders but percolate from the bottom up from people who share common grievances. Nor are they the result of individuals acting alone, although the courageous actions of one individual can provide a powerful defining symbolic spark—just as with the image of the dignified and proud Mrs. Parks sitting on that bus and refusing to move. But if Jo Ann Robinson had not been watchful and ready with a mimeograph machine to run off 30,000 flyers to circulate to Montgomery’s Black community about Mrs. Parks and calling for a bus boycott, and had not pushed her Dexter Avenue Church’s young pastor into the forefront, who knows what might have happened? So we can and should be enormously inspired by Mrs. Parks at that moment. But we should be equally inspired and informed by all the work she and others did behind the scenes before and after that day, and by all of the other women and men whose names we’ll never know who worked to end racial injustice before and after December 1, 1955. Their individual and collective decisions to stand up for themselves and one another created the Montgomery movement—and the Montgomery movement changed America’s conception of what was just and possible.

It is past time for another transforming movement in America today to challenge rampant and morally obscene wealth and income inequality in our nation and the materialism, militarism, poverty, and racism Dr. King warned could destroy us. We have come a very long way towards honoring the Declaration of Independence’s affirmation that “all men are created equal with certain inalienable rights” and overcoming some of the effects of the huge birth defects of slavery, Native American genocide, and the exclusion of women and non-propertied White men from equal footing in our new nation. But we must continue to move forward until a level playing field is a reality and resist those who seek to move us backwards into a second Post Reconstruction era through voter suppression, mass incarceration, failing schools, absent jobs, and rampant poverty. This will require committed and prepared marathoners like Mrs. Parks, not sprinters or self marketers seeking momentary glory in our ten-second attention span media-driven culture. Movement building is a complex and long term struggle that must be pursued with both urgency and persistence and a critical mass of citizens must step up to the plate and stay there until real change happens.

The German playwright Bertolt Brecht said: “There are those who struggle for a day and they are good. There are those who struggle for a year and they are better. There are those who struggle all their lives. These are the indispensable ones.” Mrs. Rosa Parks was an indispensable one who struggled all of her life for freedom and justice as did countless unknown Black citizens. So let us not just celebrate her example and that of the young preacher leader and people of Montgomery, let’s follow their example.


Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Submitted by Green Lady at: March 29, 2013
Moving and inspiring, this article is so beautifully written and crafted. It evokes a multitude of emotions and passions and persuades us to do better, to strive for better. Thank you, Mrs. Edelman.

Submitted by Kitti at: March 16, 2013
I am going back 2 re-read it!!!! Thank U...........

Submitted by Em at: March 7, 2013
This is a beautiful article. Many times we don't thank about the other that helped in a movement, but as we all know their are many unknown to us who make things happen and cause change. My work is with our teens, they are our future and must be supported so that they can be the ones to carry on our worth. Our teens need us adults and we need them. Rosa Parks was indispensable and struggled all of her life. Today we must remind our youth that struggle is a blessing and much can be accomplished through our struggle. My fight continues.

Submitted by Anonymous at: March 4, 2013
thank you for youer words i needed than

Submitted by bocavan at: March 4, 2013
Thank you Mrs. Wright Edlelman for reminding me of the redemptive value of sacrifice, suffering and courageous struggle. In the context of the times that we are currently living in, it is far more easier and convenient for me to become involved in helping to ameliorate some of the social conditions plaguing our communities. I intend to do more starting today. Thank you for lighting a match of fire and inspiration that will enable me to stop sitting on the sidelines and to become engaged in changing the problems that are impacting generations of young children, families and the elderly in our neighborhoods.The grit, determination, courage and resolve of Mrs. Rosa Parks serves as a model deserving of emulation.

Submitted by Mom4th Power at: March 4, 2013
This article strikes me as I watch my child, who was diagnosed with autism, struggle in school each day. He struggles with teachers and systems who don't care or unwilling to go the extra mile, because it is hard work. I have always chosen to be a warrior for him and other children like him.

Submitted by vaquous2013 at: March 2, 2013
Thanks you so much for sharing this with me ...and to the American People - men - women and children, of all colours shapes and sizes.--- thanks for giving me hope - I still believe;)

Submitted by Macromom at: March 2, 2013
Well said, by a woman who is herself a "committed & prepared marathoner."

Submitted by Motz at: March 2, 2013
excellent, so little is defined or illustrated of what behind-the-scenes activities lead to what is iconicized

Submitted by Anonymous at: March 2, 2013
This information should be spread to the four corners and around the world. It is just that profound. For so many years (I am a community involved person and very, very involved) and had heard that Mrs. Parks was more than a meek and humble person. She was a community involved individual, also. At the moment, I am president of a group that works with principals, teachers, students and their parents to improve that academia status in our communities. I have no children but I know the importance of children getting a good education. Mrs. Edelman, you have written a supreme article. As a journalist, I know one when I read one. Congratulation.

Submitted by Dianna at: March 2, 2013
This is one of the most thought-provoking and eloquently-written commentaries I have read in a while. As an educator, I firmly believe we must revitalize our broken public education system in America. We are failing the future generation. This must be a grassroots effort from the bottom up, starting with classroom teachers, local leaders, churches, and communities. It must be a collective effort. We must address the needs of our comminites and those at the top must be willing to listen and act. We are losing time discussing idelogy. We must have quality teachers and good instructional strategies to help our students become successful students and global citizens of the 21st century.

Submitted by BarbTC at: March 2, 2013
Each time an e-mail appears with a message from Ms Edelman, I MUST take time to read it, even though I've rushed through all other correspondence. To say I'm inspired, doesn't really cover it _I'm moved to action. As a minister with a small congregation, I share these amazing and stimulating messages with my people - hopefully inspiring them to action. The history of MS Rosa Parks with her lifelong commitment to activism, is a catalyst that will inspire those who know the background. God Bless Ms. Edelman for always giving me food for thought and action that I can share.

Submitted by Ginny at: March 2, 2013
I was in Illinois a freshman in high school when Mrs. Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus. I do remember it, but I wasn't as aware of events outside of our small town as I probably should have been. Thankfully, as time went on, I got older and started paying more attention. I recently read "The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks", so your article and President Obama's remarks in Statuary Hall were very familiar to me. Thank you so much for this wonderful column.

Submitted by Frank at: March 2, 2013
This is a great write up because the details are in the persistence of those who do the work. I will advise people to get to work and read your history presented here.

Submitted by SarahChape at: March 2, 2013
Thank you to a truly indispensable one- You are a light guiding each of us to responsible, civil action. We honor you as we work to break the cradle to prison pipeline, and defend our kids.

Submitted by Anonymous at: March 1, 2013
Powerful and it told the whole story of who and what she did for the civil rights movement.

Submitted by Cary at: March 1, 2013
Yes, indeed a transforming movement is LONG overdue. As a mental health clinician serving young children and their families, I am inspired by the reminder that movements "percolate from the bottom up from people who share common grievances." This article has given me food for thought in terms of starting up conversations with like-minded folks. Change has to start somewhere. Why not with me? Thank you!

Submitted by Jules at: March 1, 2013
I am so sad to hear of Marcus McMillan's death this past week.

Submitted by jules at: March 1, 2013
I am so saddened to hear of Marcus McMillan's death this week.

Submitted by Lois at: March 1, 2013
Itake courage to stand up to an injustice Everyone should be treated regardless of sex, color of ones' skin, ethnicity, heritage, or economic status. Mrs. Parks and Dr. King made personal sacrificed to ensure justice and tranquility for every citizen. Too bad not all people can do this.