Last year, I was asked to contribute several photographs for a book the University of Alabama Press was going to publish entitled Alabama’s Civil Rights Trail: An Illustrated Guide to the Cradle of Freedom. The book is out now, and it’s really nice – rather than a thick volume on what happened where, just paragraph after paragraph, it’s written more like a travel book which in so many cases is infinitely more interesting. You know where to go, why it’s important, and what to make sure you see when you get there (literally, that’s how the sites are broken down). Nice and simple.
The Foreword is done by Juan Williams who writes in part:
That is why Alabama’s relationship to its treasure trove of history is so very intense – it is personal. And for many in Alabama there is a sense of protecting family secrets and family pain, not wanting to air dirty laundry. After all, there are heroes and villains, racists and agitators, activists and traditionalists in the story. There are murderers and liars, too, on every side of the tale. They all have their stories to tell, and every story has a power to it, insight and inspiration that comes with each soul’s version of his or her Alabama history.
But when I arrived at the Institute (Birmingham Civil Rights Institute), I was stunned to see that it was across the street from Kelly Ingram Park, the place renown in history books as the gathering site for so many civil rights protests and clashes between police and demonstrators.
The main door to the institute was practically across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a living shrine to four black Sunday school girls killed there by a segregationist’s bomb. And a short ride from the museum will take you to what remains of the jail where Dr. King wrote an American classic known to every high school student ‘ “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
It is mind boggling that there is so much American history concentrated in any one place, but it is in Alabama.
To be sure, those things mattered to Mrs. Parks. She knew the history of racial oppression in the South and was becoming more active in the struggle against it. But on the afternoon of December 1, she was simply tired.
Rosa Parks had been active in the NAACP since the early ’30s. Her husband volunteered for the organization on the Scottsboro Boys case. She was the chapter’s youth advisor. She worked with the AL president of the organization on a Montgomery voter registration drive in the early ’40s. She was elected secretary of the Montgomery chapter. In the early ’50s, she went to the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee and attended on scholarship a workshop on school integration for several weeks.
Books that forward the idea that Rosa Parks was just someone too tired to move from where she was sitting on the bus are not giving Rosa her due.
The NAACP website states:
Contrary to the folkloric accounts of her civil rights role, Mrs. Parks was not too tired to move. Rather, she had been a knowledgeable NAACP stalwart for many years and gave the organization the incident it needed to move against segregation in the unreconstructed heart of the Confederacy, Montgomery, AL.
I love that on page 26 the author mentions Miss Claudette Colvin, who was arrested for the same thing Rosa Parks did nine months earlier, at the very same bus stop. We should have probably learned her name in high school history classes. She had just spontaneously had enough, and wasn’t backed by anybody. The New York Times writes about her:
The adults who brought about the monumental transformations of the civil rights era decided not to make an example of Colvin’s case; they feared she wouldn’t be the right public face for the Montgomery bus boycott. But it was her rebellious act that got things going. Hoose describes her personal struggle against the culture around her in terms young people of any era can readily understand.
Growing up in Jim Crow Montgomery, Colvin questioned everything. She shocked her peers when she stopped straightening her hair and challenged the dominance of the light-skinned, popular girls at school. “We seemed to hate ourselves,” she told Hoose in an interview.
Her refusal to move on the bus one day after school and her subsequent arrest became a rallying point for the burgeoning civil rights movement; suddenly every one knew her name. Publicity about the case spotlighted the meanness of the segregation law and prepared the way for Rosa Parks’s famous stand.
Colvin read about Rosa Parks and the bus boycott and decided she had to return to Montgomery to take part in the movement she’d helped ignite. One year after her arrest, while her infant son slept at home, she became a star witness in the landmark federal lawsuit attacking segregation, Browder v. Gayle. The attorney in the case, Fred Gray, had remembered Colvin for her bravery and also her declaration to the police as they dragged her from her seat: “It’s my constitutional right!” Gray later said, “I don’t mean to take anything away from Mrs. Parks, but Claudette gave all of us the moral courage to do what we did.”
Those were some beautiful, strong girls.