Today–December 1–is the anniversary of the arrest of Rosa Parks. On this day, in 1955, she boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and refused to comply with the city code delineating segregation on the bus system.
In our national history, this “simple” act is now depicted as the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, Miss Parks’ refusal to give up her seat did initiate a chain of events providing the context of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a campaign that mobilized that Southern city, drew the attention of the nation and world, and marked the public debut of Martin Luther King Jr. But “the movement” has a history much more complex and with longer roots than suggested by the simplistic narratives we to which we cling.
In this era, when the election of Barack Obama is being characterized by many as the fulfillment of the dream of racial equality and equity, it is perhaps even more important to remind ourselves of how “the movement” has roots in the U.S. radical traditions of the first half of the 20th century; how organized movement by groups of women activists turned a simple arrest into a global campaign; and how the cause of justice remains a worthy endeavor.
For more information on the bus boycott and how collective action turned Rosa Parks’ act into a movement, check out the classic Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson from your local library. For an interesting and detailed account of the long historic roots to the mid-century movement, see Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore’s new book, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950.