Rosa Parks made history, but she didn’t act alone. It took the choice of a powerless teen to shame the movement into action.
February is Black History Month and each year someone will tell the same rueful joke: February was chosen to celebrate Black History because it’s the shortest month of the year.
February also happens to be the birth month of Rosa Parks, a seminal figure in black history. Once one becomes especially aware of Mrs. Parks, as I am, her presence in the media, many years past her death and many decades past her historic actions, is remarkable. Her calm visage, her humble biography, and the powerful narrative of her spontaneous decision to refuse to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white man is a tale told regularly.
Her narrative is remarkably powerful and pervasive, and also untrue. Or, better put, the narrative of her bus experience is a myth; it’s based in truth but the story is not what it appears to be. I know this because I heard the story from the last survivor of the original architects of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I heard it first-hand from Fred Gray.
Fred Gray was the fourth black man ever to get a law license in the state of Alabama and he’s still there, still practicing law. In civil rights circles, he’s legal royalty, in part because he was the lawyer that filed the suit that desegregated the buses in Montgomery. As such, he was Rosa Parks’ lawyer.
I met Fred when one of his legal partners hired me to write a film script from his book, “Bus Ride To Justice.” I read his book before I met him, and from it learned that Rosa was not just a department store seamstress. She was also a part time secretary to the Alabama NAACP leader E.D. Nixon. Mr. Nixon himself a mythic figure, introduced Rosa to civil rights leaders all over the South. She was deeply involved in “the movement,” as they called it. She knew which way the wind was blowing.
I brought this up in my first meeting with Mr. Gray. It was my thinking at the time that Rosa had kicked off the bus boycott on her own authority. I imagined her getting on the bus, day after day, thinking “Will this be the day? Will this be the day I’m asked to get up and I refuse?”
So, I asked Fred point blank if, in fact, she had done just that, and he slyly replied “You’d have to ask her.” She was deceased by then, and so unavailable for comment.
As the weeks of reading, researching and interviewing carried on, however, I realized that I had stumbled on to one of the great PR ruses of all time. Rosa was not a tired disinterested simpleton who had spontaneously refused to go along with the order or the day, and she was also not a reckless loner who initiated the ensuing bus boycott on her own.
Rosa Parks was one member of a cabal, a group of savvy plotters, who suspected the time had arrived to overthrow the hated bus seating arrangement. When she boarded that bus, she knew where to sit, she knew what would happen, she knew what she would say, she knew which police station she would be taken to, she knew who she would call, she knew what she would be charged with and she knew what was going to happen next. It was a script, carefully thought through, and perfectly executed.
It took several interviews for Fred Gray to reach the point of openly admitting this. The instinct to stick with the original narrative of a bewildered innocent bringing down the powerful with the simple spontaneous refusal to go along was very strong. It had certainly made sense in the day when “conniving negro” and “uppity niggar” were not unheard phrases. The entire movement was easier to sell if it seemed to be happening amongst childlike southern blacks who were sympathetic figures of pity to white northerners.
The spontaneous refusal narrative also had the added benefit of being true. There had been a black woman who had simply had enough and refused to give up her seat. She had been arrested and charged. And, Fred Gray had been her lawyer. It just wasn’t Rosa Parks; it was a 15 year-old girl named Claudette Colvin.
Claudette Colvin’s story is not new and has been reported on widely. Parks was arrested in December of 1955, but Colvin’s moment of destiny on the Montgomery buses had come the previous March. She was the adopted daughter of a servant class black family and had no reason to believe she would be supported by anyone when she refused to stand up. The police didn’t politely escort her off, as they did Parks; they dragged her off the bus. All Gray could do was manage her confession and try to mitigate the penalty.
The real effect of Colvin’s arrest is what it did to Gray, and his fellow activist cohorts, including Parks.
“We were ashamed of ourselves after Colvin’s arrest,” Gray told me. “She had nothing. She wasn’t connected to anyone. She had just refused.”
That summer, Gray and Parks, along with E.D. Nixon and another movement supporter named Joanne Robinson, began to piece together the plan that ultimately was set in motion in December with Parks’ arrest and then culminated in the lawsuit filed by Gray.
Martin Luther King, Jr. who came to prominence as the spokesperson for the boycott, or protest as it was called then because boycotts were technically illegal, didn’t even live in Montgomery at the time Gray, Parks, Nixon and Robinson put the plan together. King was called upon later to be the movement mouthpiece, mostly because he was an outsider to Montgomery black politics and hadn’t offended anyone yet.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott has been studied and reported on extensively, and most of what I learned from Fred has been documented elsewhere. But, I think he may have tipped me to something truly unique when he told me that shame, the shame that educated, connected adults feel when the weak and powerless do what the powerful should have, propelled them forward.
It does not mean that Rosa Parks was fraudulent, or that anyone was deceitful. It does mean that sometimes, letting a myth take the place of the mundane reality is really useful. Sometimes silence is golden.
Fred Gray went on to file lawsuit after lawsuit against the segregation ordnances and practices of the day. He was the lead plaintiff lawyer representing the victims of the odious and shocking Tuskegee Syphilis Study. He grew to be quite wealthy and had an office building built and named The Gray Law Center right across the street from one of the court houses where he filed many of his cases.
But it was the actions of a powerless teen that shamed him and his movement co-conspirators to act. Their actions launched Rosa Parks in to American history and made Martin Luther King a national hero and later, a national martyr.
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Photo: Getty Images