The Power of No

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She shall not be moved: the immortalized image of Rosa Parks glued to the bus seat, glancing out the window at a future she would help create.

Much of the modern mythology about Rosa Parks is that she was a quiet lady, a tired seamstress who, after a long day’s work, just didn’t have the energy to get up out of her seat on the bus and give it to a white person. That’s what kids learn in elementary school. It’s the Hallmark version.

Actually, Rosa Parks was “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.” Jim Crow rules in Montgomery, Alabama were a humiliating, daily reminder of insufferable white power. Rosa was more than a seamstress. She was an angry black woman using her anger in the service of a revolution whose time had come.

“I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed,” she later said. “I had decided I needed to know once and for all what rights I had as a citizen and human being

On Day Two of this journey, we visited the Rosa Parks Museum on the campus of Troy University. This remarkable experience revealed not only the profound courage of those who would stand up to whites (sometimes by sitting down) but also the tremendous brilliance and creativity of the strategy they used to tear down the system brick by brick.

In the introductory film shown at the museum, black residents of Montgomery recalled having to “give up your seat on the public bus to whites, regardless of age. Bus drivers never said, ‘sir, would you please move?’ Instead it was always, ‘boy, get up or n, move back.’”

Rosa Parks was determined to do something about this shameful outrage. A member of the NAACP, Rosa went to the famed Highlander Center in Tennessee, where social justice activists of all backgrounds were trained in strategy.

Rosa said it was a transformative experience. It was the first time in her life she didn’t feel hostility for whites. The welcoming smells of coffee and bacon in the morning at Highlander were even more comforting because breakfast was prepared and served by white people who wanted to nurture and nourish her.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was an effort largely led by women. Joanne Robinson and her college students printed, cut, packaged and delivered over 52,000 leaflets to churches, businesses, beauty and barber shops, spreading the word of a one-day bus boycott scheduled for Monday, December 5, 1955. Word got out and people were ready.

On display at the museum is a photo of the interior of a bus from that fateful day:  A lone white woman is seated on a bus that was usually standing room only.

The demands of the bus boycott were simple and reasonable:

  1. Drivers should treat black riders with respect and courtesy.
  2. Seats should be taken first come, first- served basis.
  3. Black drivers should be hired to take over routes in the black community.

Martin Luther King, Jr. got involved in the boycott, which extended for nearly a year. The bus company lost about $3000 a day and that money was instead donated to the civil rights movement. This boycott was hitting the establishment where it hurt most. Angry whites threatened to kill MLK if he didn’t call it off. As promised, MLK’s home was firebombed. He was at a meeting at the time; his family got lucky and escaped harm.

Here’s part of the genius of the story. Black folks still had to get to work. Supportive whites offered to carpool them at great risk to themselves and set up a bunch of pick-up locations around town. Media coverage of the boycott and the arrests of prominent African Americans spread like wildfire around the world and donations began to pour in to support this freedom struggle. The money was used to buy a fleet of 350 cars to transport black workers. The white power establishment did all they could to stymie this effort, refusing to grant licenses or insurance for the vehicles. Then, somebody had a brilliant idea to declare each of these cars a mobile church and apply the name of a church and minister to each vehicle.

Don’t mess with the first amendment, people. Freedom of religion would reign supreme.

The bus boycott was finally called off in late December, 1956 and four civil rights leaders took a victory ride on December 21: MLK, Jr., Attorney Fred Gray, Rev. Glen Smiley of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy.

Rosa Parks should have been on that historic bus ride, along with the four women whose winning lawsuit contributed to the desegregation of Montgomery buses. But Parks no longer lived in the South.  She had already moved to Detroit, the city she called home until her death in 2005.

Julie Drizin, Silver Spring

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