Rosa Parks Had a Posse! Lessons for Organizers from the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Who was Rosa Parks?

I’m sure everyone has heard the story of the brave Ms. Parks. In December 1955, while riding the bus home in Montgomery Alabama and tired from a hard day of work, Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat to a white rider on the crowded bus–as local Jim Crow segregation laws required African Americans to do.

Ms. Parks was arrested and her actions kicked off a boycott of the bus service by African Americans that led to the desegregation of public transportation.

That’s true as far as it goes–but it doesn’t tell the whole story and the traditional story leaves out entirely the organizing that led to the eventual victory:

  • Rosa Parks’ actions were not a spur of the moment decision–and Ms. Parks was not just a random bus rider. Rosa Parks was an officer in the local NAACP and had received organizing training at the famous Highlander Folk School in Tennessee–the training ground for scores of civil rights activists throughout the South. She was also not the first black woman in Montgomery arrested for defying the bus laws.
  • Rosa Parks did not act alone. Jo Ann Robinson and the Women’s Political Council, a group of professional African American women, mostly teachers, printed up over 50,000 fliers calling for a boycott the same night Ms. Parks was arrested. On Friday, students and teachers distributed these fliers at all black schools in Montgomery. The black churches announced the boycott that weekend. The boycott started on Monday–with hundreds of people operating private carpools and black taxi drivers charging the same fares as the buses.
  • The boycott lasted over a year. And only ended when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal court’s ruling that “enforced segregation of black and white passengers on motor buses operating in the City of Montgomery violates the Constitution and laws of the United States, because the conditions deprived people of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.”

What lessons should the organizer take away from the story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott?

  • Actions benefit from a compelling personal story . . .
  • But actions need cooperative action to be successful
  • Be dedicated
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