Sometimes, all it takes is for one person to act

By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)

Fifty six years ago, on Thursday, December 1, 1955, the action of a 42-year-old African-American woman catapulted her into the pages of history. It was one of the defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement.

Rosa Parks was a seasoned activist when she was arrested on that fateful Thursday night. She and her husband, Raymond Parks, were actively involved in seeking justice for the wrongfully accused “Scottsboro Boys”. This infamous case began in 1931 when, on March 25, a group of nine young African-American men were accused of raping two White women. Despite strong evidence of their innocence, an all-White jury convicted them and sentenced eight of them to death.

The accusation of rape came after a fight broke out between a group of young White men and a group of young African-American men who were riding on a Southern Railroad freight train. The train was stopped by an angry mob in Paint Rock, Alabama and the African-Americans were arrested for assault. Rape charges were added when two White women who were also on the train accused the African American youth of rape.

It was speculated that the White women accused the African American youth of rape because they feared they would be arrested for vagrancy or for being hobos in the company of these young men. One of the women had been arrested for adultery and fornication just two months before, in January 1931. Whatever their reasons for the accusations they both stuck to their stories until April 7, 1933 when, under cross examination, a different story was told.

All the Scottsboro boys eventually gained their freedom but the process took almost 20 years. Meanwhile, Parks became a member of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and was one of the driving forces in seeking to repeal the laws of segregation.

Although African-Americans in Montgomery, Alabama were the lifeblood of the Montgomery public transportation system, they were disrespected by the drivers, forced to sit at the back of the bus and to relinquish their seats when the White section of the bus was filled.

When Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, she had years of activism to call upon, together with the support of her community who knew her as someone who could go the extra mile when the going got tough. After all, she had been instrumental in ensuring that incidents of White men raping African American women were not swept under the White supremacist carpet of the segregated government.

In the 2011 book At the dark end of the street: black women, rape, and resistance – a new history of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the rise of black power, her almost single-handed determination to seek justice when, in 1944, an African-American woman, Recy Taylor, was brutally raped by seven White men (armed with knives and shotguns) is well documented. Risking her physical safety, Parks vigorously investigated and pursued the case to its conclusion and, even though none of the seven White rapists was convicted of the crime, the case received widespread attention. Parks recruited other activists and created the “Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor”, which attracted international interest.

Earlier this year, on March 30, the Alabama state legislature, in apologizing for their refusal to prosecute the rapists of Recy Taylor, passed a resolution which read in part, “we acknowledge the lack of prosecution for crimes committed against Recy Taylor by the government of the State of Alabama, that we declare such failure to act was, and is, morally abhorrent and repugnant, and that we do hereby express profound regret for the role played by the government of the State of Alabama in failing to prosecute the crimes”.

Taylor, now 91 years old, received the news in her Florida home where she, her husband and baby daughter had been forced to flee after a fire bombing of their home and death threats from the good White citizens of Alabama following the widespread publicizing of the rape.

On Thursday, December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the back of the bus to a White man who could not find a seat in the White section, she may have thought about the “Scottsboro Boys”, Recy Taylor and the many other people for whom she had advocated.

One person she did think about, as she sat on the bus waiting to be arrested, was Emmett Till. Parks is quoted as saying: I thought about Emmett Till, and I could not go back. My legs and feet were not hurting, that is a stereotype. I paid the same fare as others, and I felt violated.

Emmett Till was the 14-year-old African American youth who had been brutally tortured and murdered by two White men who accused him of whistling at a 21-year-old White woman.

Till, who was born in Chicago, the only child of Mamie Till Mobley, had been spending the summer with relatives in Money, Mississippi when, in the early hours of August 28, 1955 two White men arrived at his elderly relative’s home, woke him up and took him away. He was never seen alive again. Three days after his abduction, the body of the 14-year-old was found. The two White men had brutally beaten the child, gouged out one of his eyes, shot him through the head and tied a 75-pound cotton gin fan around his neck with barbed wire before disposing of his body in the Tallahatchie River.

The authorities tried to quietly bury his body in Mississippi but his mother fought them to have his body returned to Chicago where the world could see the brutal face of the White supremacist culture that allowed the vicious murder of her child. The two men who murdered Till were found not guilty by a jury of their peers. Their confession was published in Look magazine in January 1956.

Remembering the kidnapping, torture and murder of 14-year-old Till earlier that year, Parks decided, on December 1, 1955, that she would not move – and the rest is history.

Parks was a human rights activist and crusader for social justice whose life story is more than her actions on December 1, 1955. However, her action on that Thursday night snowballed and, eventually, caused the desegregation of the Montgomery public transportation system.

Sometimes, all it takes to change the system is for one person to take action.

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