SAN JOSE, February 4, 2014 — In 1915, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, considered by historians as the father of Black History, co-founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, and a year later, he began the publication of the Journal of Negro History which was renamed the Journal of African American History in 2002. However, after ten years of lobbying schools and various organizations to participate in his dream of promoting the awareness of African American history to the general public, he created Negro History Week. Over the years, his Negro History Week evolved into what is now Black History Month, celebrated each February since 1976.
While many Americans in 2014 are aware of Black History Month, many are unaware that February 4th, as well as December 1st of each year are celebrated officially in at least Ohio and California as days to honor Rosa Parks, referred to by the United States Congress as the “first lady of civil rights.” Rosa Louise McCauley Parks was born on February 4, 1913, only one year after Dr. Woodson completed his Ph.D. in history at Harvard University. While Dr. Woodson sought to help the American people become aware of African-American history, Rosa Parks made it when she was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1, 1955, forty years after Dr. Woodson initiated his educational association.
While many Americans believe that Rosa Parks was an elderly little Negro lady who had experienced enough of racially unjust treatment in her state of Alabama, and spontaneously refused to get out of a “Whites Only” designated seat, this is not an accurate perception. Rosa Parks was in her forties, and quite active in the NAACP, and at the time, she was serving as secretary of the Montgomery chapter. In 1955, Parks had completed a course in “Race Relations” at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee (now known as The Highlander Research and Education Center), which was European-styled training center founded for political activists in 1934.
Rosa Parks had been employed as a seamstress in a local Montgomery department store, but through the training center, she had learned about non-violent civil disobedience as a tactic of peaceful political change. After work on December 1, 1955, she boarded a local bus, and was eventually prodded by the bus driver to surrender her seat in the front row of seats of the colored section to a white passenger who was unable to get a seat in the “Whites Only” area because it had been completely filled. While the other black passengers obeyed the bus driver’s order to vacate the entire row of seats (essentially normal procedure based on the actual practice of bus segregation) Rosa Parks resisted and she was arrested.
Contrary to popular belief, Rosa Parks was not the first black person to resist the unofficial Jim Crow practice of segregation of public buses. A little known incident that occurred in 1944 when a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army by the name of Jackie Robinson refused to move to the back of a local bus and ended up in a confrontation with an Army officer in Fort Hood, Texas. Future major league ball player Robinson was brought up on charges, and ultimately faced a military court-martial. Jackie Robinson was eventually acquitted. Then, after World War II, the NAACP started actively investigating and litigating such cases.
One such legal challenge as early as 1946, involved a woman named Irene Morgan, and it resulted in a victory in the U.S. Supreme Court that established the precedent that interstate commerce came under the Commerce Clause, and segregation on buses traveling from state to state was unconstitutional. However, even though this case was historic and overturned state segregation laws; such a law did not apply to travel on buses within state boundaries. Most southern states allowed the bus companies to simply bypass the federal Morgan ruling, and the companies followed their own Jim Crow practices of segregation on public buses, and left it to the individual bus drivers to enforce restrictions. During this time, several efforts were made to challenge such Jim Crow discrimination in various southern states.
Many historians recognize the very first civil rights boycott challenging the practice of segregation on public buses as the one organized by Rev. T. J. Jemison in 1953. The effort occurred in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after the city-parish council passed a law that abolished race based seating restrictions, which actually allowed African-Americans to sit in the front seats of Baton Rouge buses when there were no white passengers aboard. However, white bus drivers went on strike after Rev. Jemison had the audacity to sit in the front row of a bus, and city authorities refused to arrest the bold black minister. Bowing to the demands of the bus drivers, the Louisiana Attorney General ruled the city ordinance to be counter to Louisiana state law. So, on February 25, 1953, Rev. Jemison organized his own strike: a boycott of Baton Rouge buses.
A similar incident arose on March 2, 1955, when Claudette Colvin, a 15 year-old student at Booker T. Washington High School in Montgomery, Alabama, when she also would not give up her seat on a bus to a white man. She was handcuffed and arrested, and then forcibly taken off the public bus. Ms. Colvin was also a member of the NAACP, an active member of their Youth Council. In fact, Rosa Parks served as an advisor to this youth group as one of her responsibilities in the NAACP chapter in Montgomery. Many civil rights activists were attempting to use Colvin’s case to build a legal challenge to the bus segregation laws throughout the south, but he NAACP decided to not make her a focal point because she had become pregnant out of wedlock, and the image would have been poorly received by the public.
The president of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, Edgar Nixon, and other NAACP organizers believed that Rosa Parks provided a more solid case and a more acceptable character for the ensuing legal challenge to Alabama’s segregation laws after Parks had refused to comply with the driver’s seat demands, and was found guilty on December 5th and was fined $10.00 plus a court cost of $4.00, but she appealed. Unfortunately, her court case eventually stagnated in the state court system. Nevertheless, Rosa Parks’ act of defiance within the white-dominated society sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and she eventually became a symbol and an international icon of the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks passed away on October 24, 2005, but the memory of her deeds lives on.
Happy Birthday Rosa Parks!