On 1 December 1955, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old black woman who had just completed her day’s work in a department store in Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat on a city bus to a white passenger, as required by municipal law. The incident sparked a year-long bus boycott, the beginning of the modern phase of the civil rights revolution. And it made Parks, the ‘seamstress with tired feet’ (she was a tailor’s assistant), an international symbol of ordinary blacks’ determination to resist the daily injustices and indignities of the Jim Crow South.
Today, with the birthday of Martin Luther King a national holiday and Alabama cities like Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery competing to attract tourists by highlighting their role in the struggle for racial justice, Rosa Parks has become a national icon second only to King himself. Highways, city streets and subway stations have been named in her honour. A black fisherman in Alaska refers to himself, according to USA Today, as ‘the Rosa Parks of the Bering Sea’. In the past few years, Parks has been awarded a Congressional medal, been invited to sit beside the First Lady during a State of the Union address by President Clinton, and been named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most significant individuals of the 20th century. Last December, at the street corner where she was arrested, Montgomery’s city fathers opened the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, complete with a sculpture of Parks in her bus seat with space for visitors to have their pictures taken sitting alongside her bronze replica.
Douglas Brinkley’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory is the first serious biography of Parks. It is also part of a new series of brief lives of famous individuals written by authors not previously known for expertise on the subjects of their books. Brevity and the often surprising match between subject and author make the series distinctive. The ‘concept’, as its editor James Atlas explained to me a few years ago, is to produce books that airline passengers can read on a flight from New York to San Francisco and finish before they reach the Golden Gate. Given the entertainment options available at 35,000 feet this is not an exacting standard. Most books in the series, including Brinkley’s, have more than met it.
A historian whose previous work has concentrated on Presidential politics and American foreign relations, Brinkley faced a difficult challenge in approaching the life of Parks, and not only because this is his first book on the struggle for racial justice. Despite her status as the ‘mother of the civil rights movement’, as a world-historical figure Parks ranks somewhat below Joan of Arc, Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci or Mao, who also figure in the series. Parks is important because of her connection with a mass movement, yet the series format does not lend itself to a life-and-times approach. Brinkley is a skilled writer who has combed the archives for information about Parks and the society in which she lived, and he succeeds in placing her life before the bus boycott in its political and social context. But her subsequent career and the fate of the movement she helped to inspire are treated in cursory fashion.
Born in Alabama in 1913, Parks grew up in a world of racial segregation and periodic lynchings; a deep economic gulf existed between the races; the Ku Klux Klan was again on the rise. The daughter of a schoolteacher and a carpenter – he abandoned the family when she was young – Parks was raised by her grandparents. She sought solace from the deprivations of poverty and racism in the black church. The young Parks prayed regularly, read the Bible daily, and while imbibing the principle of turning the other cheek, coupled Christian forgiveness with a determination to stand up for her rights. From her grandfather, an admirer of Marcus Garvey, she heard the message of racial pride and self-discipline, lessons reinforced at the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls. For a few years, she attended this institution for blacks founded after the Civil War by Northern missionaries, until the Klan ran the headmaster out of town and forced the school to close.
Today, it is easy to forget that the civil rights revolution came as a great surprise. Those like Gunnar Myrdal, author of the influential 1944 study An American Dilemma, who saw that the South’s racial system could not survive indefinitely, expected the challenge to develop in the North, where blacks had far greater latitude for political organisation. One virtue of studying Parks’s early life is that it makes clear the extent to which the revolution arose out of earlier local struggles for racial justice that have been largely forgotten. Although Brinkley does not quite put it this way, these earlier struggles were catalysed during the 1930s and World War Two by a broad left-wing movement of Communists, trade unionists and social reformers, operating in an uneasy coalition with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. This was the world in which Parks matured.
Her politicisation began during the 1930s, when she married Raymond Parks, one of the founding members of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP and an avid reader of black periodicals like the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier and the Crisis – the latter a brilliant chronicle of black achievements and disabilities edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. Beginning in 1933, she took part in meetings to protest the case of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black youths falsely accused of rape and sentenced first to death and later to long prison terms in a series of trials that revealed Alabama justice to the world as a travesty. Largely through the efforts of the American Communist Party, the case became an international cause célèbre. In 1943, she joined the NAACP and, as the only woman at her first meeting, was chosen as secretary. For the next decade, while living with her husband and infirm mother in a Montgomery housing project and earning money as a seamstress, Parks organised the files and maintained the correspondence of E.D. Nixon, the NAACP’s charismatic and militant local leader and a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which was led by the civil rights pioneer A. Philip Randolph.
Brinkley rightly points out that historians of the movement have ignored the full story of Parks’s life as an ‘authentic grass-roots activist’. Her image as a simple seamstress – so inspiring to blacks and non-threatening to whites – obscured the fact that she was well-informed about racial politics and enjoyed a wide range of experience. When in 1943 Nixon founded the Alabama Voters’ League to challenge the disenfranchisement of blacks, Parks tried to register to vote, only to be barred because she had supposedly failed a literacy test. Unlike other rejected aspirants, she persevered and on her third attempt became one of very few Montgomery blacks added to the voter rolls – but only after she had paid a hefty poll tax.
At the time, Parks was working at Maxwell Air Force base near Montgomery. On the base buses were integrated, but in the city blacks were constantly treated with discourtesy by white drivers and forced to give up their seats if whites needed them. In 1943, when she boarded a bus through the front door, the driver, James F. Blake, brusquely ordered her to leave and re-enter through the rear. Parks was so disturbed by her treatment that she resolved never again to ride a bus driven by Blake, a pledge she kept for 12 years. Ironically, the bus on which her historic act of defiance took place in 1955 was driven by the same James F. Blake.
In 1954, Parks obtained work as a seamstress for Clifford and Virginia Durr, prominent white supporters of racial justice whose commitment to this and other left-wing causes, including the Presidential campaign of Henry Wallace in 1948, had led to their ostracism by Montgomery society. The Durrs arranged for her to attend a training session at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, a meeting ground for labour and civil rights radicals, where activists were trained and political issues and strategies discussed in a fully integrated setting. Many of the local leaders of the civil rights movement passed through Highlander.
Thus, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, she was more than the simple lady with tired feet canonised in the press. ‘The only tired I was,’ she wrote in her memoir, ‘was tired of giving in.’ She was well aware that their treatment on city buses was a deeply-felt grievance among Montgomery’s black population and that local black leaders were actively seeking an incident to inspire a boycott. Jo Ann Robinson, a professor of English at the all-black Alabama State University, had publicly threatened city officials with a boycott in 1954. In March 1955, Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old high school junior, had refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. Nixon and the NAACP moved to organise a boycott only to call it off at the last moment when they discovered that Colvin was several months pregnant. Parks, however, was the perfect plaintiff – a demure, married, God-fearing woman about whom no one seemed to have a bad word.
We will never know precisely why Parks refused to leave her seat when ordered to do so. Her decision was not premeditated but neither was it completely spontaneous. Perhaps it was because an all-white jury in Mississippi had just acquitted the murderers of Emmett Till, a black teenager who had allegedly whistled at a white woman. Perhaps the reason was that she had inadvertently boarded a bus driven by the same driver who had evicted her 12 years earlier. Parks knew that talk of a boycott was in the air. At any rate, in the wake of her arrest the boycott began.
Brinkley ably introduces the cast of characters who organised this remarkable episode – Nixon, Robinson, the talented black lawyer Fred Gray, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, and, of course, the 25-year-old Martin Luther King, who had recently come to Montgomery to serve as minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and whose elevation to spokesman for the movement launched his career as a national figure while annoying many of the city’s long-time civil rights leaders. The boycott was a complete success. For 13 months, black maids, janitors, teachers and students walked to their destinations or rode an informal network of private taxis. Eventually, the Supreme Court declared bus segregation statutes unconstitutional. The Montgomery boycott launched the black movement as a mass non-violent crusade, based in the black churches of the South, that eventually toppled the edifice of segregation.
After the boycott, Parks slipped into the background. In 1957, dismayed by the persistent death threats directed at herself and her husband, she and her family moved to Detroit. From here onwards, the book becomes extremely sketchy. Events cascade forward with little real explanation or evaluation – the sit-ins, the March on Washington, Selma, Black Power, the Detroit riot of 1967, the assassination of King. Brinkley claims that by the mid-1960s, Parks had become ‘a tough-minded, free-thinking feminist who had grown impatient with gradualist approaches’. But he offers little detail to substantiate this claim, other than her admiration for Malcolm X. Parks certainly remained active in the civil rights struggle and in the 1980s picketed in Washington as part of the anti-apartheid movement. In 1994 she became a national symbol of a rather different kind when she was robbed in her Detroit home by a young black intruder. She remains alive today, at the age of 88.
Within the constraints of the series, Brinkley has done justice to his subject. The same cannot be said for the publisher. Presumably to avoid frightening off those potential airline readers, the book has no notes and no index. Perhaps worse, there are no illustrations. Brinkley vividly describes well-known photographs of Parks, including one published on the front page of the New York Times when she was arrested as part of a crackdown on boycott leaders by city officials. He writes of the ‘haunting Alabama photographs of African Americans during the Great Depression’ taken by the Swiss journalist Annemarie Schwarzenback, which ‘offer a marvellous visual record of the world in which Rosa Parks grew up’. But what these images actually depict is left to the reader’s imagination.
Despite Brinkley’s heroic effort to make us understand Parks as a seasoned activist and part of a popular movement, the older image remains more saleable. What does the publisher put on the back cover to promote the book? ‘When in 1955 Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, she changed the course of history.’ Like King, frozen in historical memory on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial delivering his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, Parks is forever the simple woman with tired feet who singlehandedly brought down segregation.
Today, Montgomery is integrated, and blacks vote in the same proportions as whites. But a startling gap in income, life expectancy and education continues to divide the races. The housing project in which Parks lived still stands, located on the renamed Rosa L. Parks Avenue. But squalor has overtaken these once well-maintained if segregated houses, and random gunfire can sometimes be heard at night. The story of Rosa Parks underscores how far America has come since the days of Jim Crow, and how far it still has to go.