Sixty years ago today, an African American woman committed the most famous act of civil disobedience in American history.
Unfortunately, fame does not guarantee accurate historical memory. The real Rosa Parks is far more interesting than the mythical figure of the popular imagination.
Most people have the basics right: Parks got arrested for refusing to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger. Her brave stand sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, kicked off the the Civil Rights Movement and helped anoint Martin Luther King as its leader.
The conventional telling casts our heroine as a humble department store seamstress merely minding her own business on her commute home. Shortly after her arrest, explaining her decision to stay put that day, Parks allegedly said, “I was just plain tired, and my feet hurt.”
Scholars have struggled to confirm the veracity of that quotation. The earliest instances I have found are secondhand quotations of the seamstress by Coretta Scott King and MLK’s Nobel Peace Prize posse.
In her 1992 memoir, Parks specifically disavowed the sore feet meme: “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
This discrepancy puts the historian in the uncomfortable position of reconciling contradictory accounts among three saints of the Civil Rights Movement.
Certainly, King was not above self-promotion. Depicting Parks as a meek seamstress who just got fed up one day would burnish his image as the charismatic and visionary leader who elevated her isolated act of courage into a sustained social revolution to reclaim the constitutional liberties of an oppressed people.
More important, the sore feet soundbite— whether actually uttered by Parks or concocted by the Kings — served as compelling PR, because Americans then and now were more likely to sympathize with an spontaneous instance of peaceful defiance than with an act of calculated agitation.
Parks continued to insist that her decision to keep her seat was spontaneous. In 1999, she declared, “I did not get on the bus to get arrested. I got on the bus to go home.”
And there is no reason to doubt her. We have no evidence suggesting that her act was planned.
But she was certainly prepared.
Before her heroic act on December 1, 1955, Parks had already achieved several impressive feats for her time, place, gender and race.
First, she had finished high school, something managed by only 7% of African Americans in the US at the time — and even fewer in the Deep South.
Second, she had the courage to register to vote — repeatedly infuriating election officials by passing the unreasonable “literacy tests” required by Alabama’s Jim Crow voting laws.
Third, she was bold enough to join the Montgomery NAACP and serve as an officer and activist. As the organization’s secretary, she investigated the gang rape of a black woman by a World War II veteran and five other white men in nearby Abbeville. Parks then helped lead a committee urging justice for the victim.
Fourth, she attended Communist Party meetings with her husband. Parks never became a member herself, but merely attending such a gathering in that Red-baiting time took real courage.
Fifth — in the summer of 1955 — some liberal white friends sponsored Parks’ studies at the Highlander Folk School, a training center for civil rights and labor activists in Monteagle, Tennessee.
A few months later, this highly educated and deeply committed civil rights activist would put her training to work. While the timing might have been spontaneous, there was nothing impulsive or accidental about the poise and grace with which she carried out her act of calculated, deliberate and peaceful civil disobedience.