They stood up – and died – before Rosa Parks


Being a Negro in America means trying to smile when you want to cry. It means trying to hold on to physical life amid psychological death. It means the pain of watching your children grow up with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies. It means having your legs cut off, and then being condemned for being a cripple. It means seeing your mother and father spiritually murdered by the slings and arrows of daily exploitation, and then being hated for being an orphan.

Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Published in 1967.

On Tuesday, November 13, 1956, the United States Supreme Court made a decision that changed the lives of Americans. Prior to this decision it was the law in Montgomery, Alabama for African-Americans riding on the city buses to be forced to ride in the back of the buses.

All passengers paid their fare at the front of the bus where the driver sat. While White passengers would pay their fare, enter the bus and sit down, African-Americans were forced to step down, walk to the back of the bus and either sit in the “Colored” section or stand at the back.

When the front seats were filled, White passengers could displace any African-American passenger by demanding seats in the “Coloured” section. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the “Coloured” section of a Montgomery city bus to a White man who could not find a seat in the “White” section of the bus, her action caused a chain reaction that led to the decision of the United States Supreme Court on November 13, 1956.

Even though there are many stories from this period of American history there is usually a single story told, or variations of that single story. While the contribution of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the desegregation of the Montgomery city buses are important there are other stories.

One of those stories is about Private First Class Thomas Edward Brooks, who was born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1930. His contribution towards the desegregation of the Montgomery City buses happened five years before Rosa Parks made history on December 1, 1955.

In August, 1950 Private Brooks smartly dressed in his army uniform, boarded a Montgomery bus, dropped his dime in the fare box next to the driver and instead of exiting and going to the back door, he proceeded past the driver and began to walk through the almost empty “White” section of the bus (there was one White passenger on the bus) to the “Coloured” section.

The driver was livid that this young African-American man would dare break the segregation law that demanded he enter through the back door. He demanded that Brooks retrace his steps, get off the bus through the front door and enter through the back. Brooks demanded that the driver return his fare before he would get off the bus. The driver refused and instead shouted to a policeman who was lingering at a nearby gas station: “Hey, I got a n _ _ _ er on here who won’t act right”.

The policeman boarded the bus, and snarled at Brooks, “Get down here n _ _ _ er!” before unsheathing his club and almost bashing in the young soldier’s head.

According to eye witness Mattie Johnson, who worked as a maid for a White family in Montgomery, “When that wooden stick hit that boy’s head, it cracked like a hickory nut being snapped by a pair of pliers. My whole body jerked, like I’d been stuck by a pin. My elbows hugged my sides. I don’t know whether I cried out or not, but I probably did. The policeman glared toward us in the back of the bus but didn’t say nothing.”

The policeman, with the help of the driver, dragged the injured soldier down the centre aisle of the bus and down the stairs. As Brooks dragged himself to his feet, leaning against the front door of the bus, the policeman shot him in the back.

That brave young soldier who bled to death on the pavement, lying beside a Montgomery city bus in August 1950, tried to do what Parks succeeded in doing five years later. His story is buried in dusty archives.

Over the next three years at least two other young African-American men were killed by police on Montgomery city buses. Their stories are also buried in dusty archives and have not been told.

Some of the stories have been sanitized to make them palatable for White people to read without actually telling the real stories of that dreadful period of White supremacist brutality. Even the stories of Rosa Parks and Dr. King’s lived realities have been sanitized or reduced to one-liners like “I have a dream.”

On a similar note, in this very impressive talk at:, Chimamanda Adichie, a young Igbo writer from Nigeria, warns about the danger of the single story.

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