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Busting the Rosa Parks Myth - Poster of the Week

Updated: Dec 14, 2022

Montgomery Honor Roll

Tech Directions & Christine Ecarius

Offset, 2006

Ann Arbor, MI


Poster Text:

Montgomery Honor Roll Sparked by the December 1, 1955 arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat on the bus, black citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, boycotted the city buses from December 5 of that year until December 20, 1956. During that period many boycott organizers and participants were arrested, some of whom are shown here. The boycott ended when a United States Supreme Court ruling declared that segregation on buses was illegal.

"I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law."

– Martin Luther King, Jr.


Sixty-seven years ago today – December 1, 1955 – Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus. Her courageous act of defiance sparked the Montgomery bus boycotts. Three months earlier, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American youth, was abducted, tortured, and lynched in Mississippi. The brutality against Till and the effectiveness of the 13-month bus boycott launched the U.S. civil rights movement.

The popular and often repeated belief that Rosa Parks was “too tired” to get up after a hard day’s work is a blatant attempt to depoliticize her act and mythologize history. Parks was an active anti-segregationist, pro-civil rights activist, and served as the secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She had been training for years to defy the Jim Crow laws of segregated buses.

Even in the years after her arrest, the media portrayed her as a soft-spoken and pious hero, rather than an outspoken participant in the civil rights movement. To portray Parks as an apolitical figure in the civil rights movement was make her act—and the years of strategizing and organizing behind it—less threatening to "White America" and less instructive to "Black America."

Another myth is that Rosa Parks was the first person to refuse to give up her seat. Other activists like Claudette Colvin, Susie McDonald, Jeanette Reese, Mary Louise Smith, and Aurelia S. Browder, all violated segregation laws on public buses before Parks, but their stories ended with their paying a fine.

Parks was also not the first to be arrested. Fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested in Montgomery nine months before Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat. But as she was young and dark-skinned, and became pregnant soon after her arrest, she was not seen as an appropriate symbol for a test case.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The central role of woman in the boycott apart from Rosa Parks, is often ignored. Another central organizer was Jo Ann Robinson. In 1949, she was verbally attacked by a bus driver for sitting in the “white only” section of a Montgomery bus, and desegregating public transportation became a major cause for her. She became one of the lead organizers of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and mimeographed tens of thousands of flyers telling blacks not to ride the bus on December 5th, 1955. If it hadn’t been for the countless women who organized, walked, carpooled, and supported the boycott, history might have been very different. It is our responsibility to tell facts, not myths.

As we honor the anniversary of Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, we must also ensure that many other women, including Robinson, Colvin, McDonald, Reese, and Smith are recognized for their contributions to the civil rights movement.




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