Jyoti Bhojani is an equalities campaigner and an officer at Young Labour.
As part of Women’s History Month, which celebrates the contribution of Women to events in History and contemporary society, I looked across the Atlantic for a truly inspirational woman who changed the face of the American Civil Rights movement and should rightly be remembered as part of Women’s History Month as well as Black History Month. Talking about how she’d like to be remembered for Rosa Parks said:
“I would like to be remembered as person who wanted to be free…so other people would also be free”
It will come as no surprise then that Parks is remembered for exactly that. Indeed, the US congress has called her ‘the mother of the freedom movement’ and ‘the first lady of civil rights’. Born in 1913, a time when the southern American states were governed by the Jim Crow Laws, which separated Black and white communities in almost all aspects of their daily lives. Parks’ childhood revolved around the small church where her uncle was the pastor, it was here she developed a strong sense of faith and racial pride. Undoubtedly though, it was her grandfather who had the biggest impact on her life, responding to the threat of the Klu Klux Klan, by keeping a loaded shotgun in the house. Parks grew up being all too aware of this separation, where on buses there were designated black and white seats. Moreover, there was no school bus for black school children and this, Parks says was the first time that she realised ‘there was a black and white world’.
She married in 1932, her husband Raymond, who as a barber and a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) which aimed to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination. Parks completed her high school education in 1933, at a time when just 7% of African-American individuals had a high school diploma. As mentioned above, the Jim Crow laws made political participation of Black communities difficult so it took another ten years before Parks became immersed in the Civil Rights Movement. She joined the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in 1943 and quickly became secretary of the branch, a post she held until 1957.
However, it was her experience at the Maxwell Air Force Base, during the Second World War, which had a big impact on her life as racial segregation was not allowed and staff were integrated. Speaking to her biographer, she says that Maxwell opened up her eyes. Her political education continued when she was encouraged to attend an educational centre for worker’s rights and racial equality. Within Montgomery, a number of black men had been killed and it was at a community meeting that she got to hear from a number of leading Civil Rights activists.
Following this, on the 1st of December 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white passenger. In her autobiography, Parks talks about her motivation for her refusal stating that she was not tired after a long day at work but was tired of having to give in and wanted to know what it felt like to have rights. However, the police were called and Parks was arrested for violating the segregation laws. Parks was found guilty and fined however, she did appeal. E.D Nixon, the leader of the NAACP, used Park’s arrest as a means of highlighting Montgomery’s policy of racial segregation on public transport.
Park’s simple act of defiance sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted for thirteen months, working with the Black Church leaders, Women’s Political council and others such as Rev. Martin Luther King Jnr, the Black community in Montgomery were encouraged to find alternative means of transport. As pressure grew across the country, the Federal Court found that Alabama’s racial segregation laws were unconstitutional; however an appeal meant that the boycott continued until the 20th of December 1956, when the Supreme Court upheld the Federal Court’s verdict.
After the bus boycott, Parks continued working for civil rights and worked for Congressmen ~John Conyers. In 1993, she was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame and in 1996 she was presented with the Medal of the Freedom Award by President Bill Clinton. She died in October 2005, and her body lay in honour in the rotunda of the U.S Capitol, being on the 2nd black individual to be given the honour since the practice started in the 19th Century.
Parks simple action of refusing to give up her seat paved the way for the National Civil Rights Movement which has clear ramifications over the world as a whole. For me, Parks symbolises what Women’s History Month is about – while in her later life she down played the role she had in the movement – I for one know that without her and all the other women who stood up for what they believed in and in the words of Martin Luther King Jnr, wanted to be judged on the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin, paved the way not only for the civil rights movement but also gave strength to black feminists. This for me is why she is one of my political and feminist heroes.
Join Progressive Women at our upcoming event on 17th April: The Race for London Mayor – a male monopoly. For more details click here.