On December 1, 1955, an African American woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Cleveland Avenue Bus to a white man. When ordered by the driver James F. Blake to surrender her seat, Parks calmly protested, reflecting on the poignant memory of her grandfather keeping watch for the Ku Klux Klan every night with a shotgun at the ready. Consequently, Parks was arrested and charged for violating the city’s segregation law. This simple act of defiance against the backwards Jim Crow Laws of the south is argued to have instigated a 381-day bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, triggering a white-radical backlash.
At the time, the event was perceived in many different ways by the press. Popular opinion in the southern states of America, renowned for an adherence to racial segregation, was mostly hostile to Parks’ rebellious act. However the black community and liberal newspapers perceived the event much differently, arguing that it was essential in prompting a change in racial consciousness. Northern public opinion however focused more on the eminent figure of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his eloquent speeches and only occasionally cited Rosa Parks as a ‘negro seamstress.’
Over time the humble seamstress and civil rights activist has become more and more revered. Parks’ vital contribution to the civil rights movement during the past decade has become highly commemorated by the press as well as eminent leaders such as President Clinton and Nelson Mandela. Not only this, but in recent years ordinary people have begun to appreciate how the resounding ‘No’ that Rosa Parks uttered on the Dec 1, 1955, may have changed their fate as well as the course of civil rights history.
The historiographical debate surrounding the Civil Rights Movement, and more specifically the Montgomery Bus Boycott, is rich and ongoing. Scholars such as Steven F. Lawson emphasise the significance of ‘top-down’ leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the authority of the Federal Government, whereas revisionist historians such as Charles Payne and David Garrow have different interpretations in favour of a grassroots movement.
The efforts of women in particular have been examined to some degree. Steven F. Lawson in his review article Freedom Then, Freedom Now: The Historiography of the Civil Rights Movement discussed a possible reason behind the strong participation of women in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Through an analysis of Steven M. Millner’s 1981 doctoral dissertation, Lawson deduced that it ‘stemmed, in part, from the fact that black females outnumbered black males in Montgomery’s population and rode the bus much more frequently than did men.’ Thus this may, to some extent, explain the reasons behind Parks’ strong aversion to Montgomery’s buses.
However, contrary to popular belief, Parks was not the only female who rallied against the forces of segregation. Her contribution to the movement has only briefly been examined. Historian David Garrow pays heed to many other female activists such as Ella Baker, Dianne Nash, Fanny Lou Hamer, Septima Clark and above all, Jo Ann Robinson, who were arguably all crucial to the success of the movement. Brinkley argues that historian Professor J. Mills Thornton III and Garrow were responsible for making Jo Ann Robinson’s place in history. Garrow and Thornton argued that it was Robinson, above any other activist, who organised the Montgomery Bus Boycott. ‘At midnight…with the help of two female students and a business professor with access to a mimeograph machine, Robinson put together a 218-word, one-page boycott flyer to be distributed throughout black Montgomery.’ 52,000 flyers were issued the following day, which gathered the much- needed support from the black community to make an impression in the southern-segregationist psyche. Owing to this, one may be hesitant to brand Parks with the sole responsibility for the 381-day boycott. Yet, it cannot be contested that, unlike any other female activist, the fact that Parks has continued to attract media attention almost 60 years on, suggests she was an incredibly influential figure