Five ways to be like Rosa Parks in the age of Black Lives Matter

Credit: National Archives

Credit: National Archives

“If I did not resist being mistreated, I would spend the rest of my life being mistreated.”

Editor’s Note: This story is one in a series of Black History Month stories that explores the role of resistance to oppression in the Black community.

Rosa Parks’ refusal on a Montgomery bus is the stuff of American legend.

Yet “her life history of being rebellious,” as she put it, is much less known, as we have grown comfortable with a Rosa Parks stripped of her politics.

In recent years, this has grown even more dangerous because a caricature of the civil rights movement, of Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., has been weaponized against young activists and Black Lives Matter, who are being told to be more like these activists of old.

The problem is that most of the criticisms against young activists today — too disruptive, troublemakers, un-American —– were waged against the civil rights movement as well. King and Parks included.

Credit: Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Credit: Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Here are five ways to be like Parks in the age of Black Lives Matter:

1. Fight the injustices of the criminal legal system.

Rosa McCauley grew up in a political family, but when she met Raymond Parks, “the first real activist I ever met” she saw the possibility of collective struggle.

Raymond was part of a group of local activists working to defend the Scottsboro Boys, a group of nine young men wrongfully convicted of raping two white women in 1931.

Rosa joined Raymond in this organizing, recounting late-night meetings with guns on the table, because even having a meeting was dangerous.

She joined the Montgomery NAACP in 1943 and spent the next decade alongside E.D. Nixon and Johnnie Carr turning it into a more activist branch focusing on voter registration, desegregation and rampant injustice in the criminal legal system.

2. Keep pushing despite unbending white resistance and Black complacency

“It was hard to keep going when all our efforts seemed in vain,” she explained as so much of their work in Montgomery produced no change. Repeatedly in her writings, Parks underscored the difficulties in mobilizing in the years before her bus stand.

“Such a good job of brainwashing was done on the Negro that a militant Negro was almost a freak of nature to [white people], many times ridiculed by others of his own group,” she said.

The summer before her arrest, she refused to go to another meeting with city officials about bus segregation, because she, “had decided I wouldn’t go anywhere paper in hand asking white folks for any favors.”

In August of 1955, four months before she made her historic bus stand, her spirits were lifted when she attended a two-week interracial workshop on desegregation at the Highlander Folk School, an adult organizer training school led by Myles Horton and Septima Clark.

Still on the last day, when asked what they would do when they returned home, Parks said that there was never going to be a mass movement in Montgomery because it was still the Cradle of the Confederacy, where white resistance was high and Black people wouldn’t stay together.

But on the first Monday of the boycott, Parks was delighted that people had stayed off the buses.

“The only thing that bothered me was that we waited so long to make this protest,” she said.

3. Contextualize the ways uprisings come from years of unmet demands.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Five weeks into the boycott, amid death threats and charges of being a communist, Parks lost her job. Raymond shortly thereafter.

Eight months after the boycott, they were forced to leave Montgomery for Detroit. In “the Northern promised land that wasn’t” they struggled to find work or a decent place to live.

But she kept fighting, spending the second half of her life fighting the racism of the Jim Crow North in and alongside a growing Black Power movement in Detroit.

“If I did not resist being mistreated,” she said. “I would spend the rest of my life being mistreated.”

A decade later, having supported a young John Conyers’ longshot campaign for Congress, he hired her to do constituent work in his Detroit office, giving her a steady paycheck and health insurance.

She was deeply moved by the 1967 Detroit uprising, a turbulent four days sparked by a police raid of a Black after-hours bar, which led to the deaths of 43 people, including 33 Black people.

“The establishment of white people…will antagonize and provoke violence,” she said. “When the young people want to present themselves as human beings and come into their own as men, there is always something to cut them down.”

4. Delight in the spirit and leadership of young people.

In the early 1950s, frustrated with the “complacency” of her peers, Parks organized the Montgomery NAACP’s youth council and encouraged its members to take a strong stance against segregation. Following the arrest of Claudette Colvin for refusing to give up her seat on a bus, Parks made her secretary of the council and encouraged her to tell her story to inspire others.

Later, Parks journeyed to Lowndes County, Alabama when Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee helped build an independent Black political party with local residents; supported reparations campaigns and political prisoner defense committees; and visited Black Panther schools.

“If I can be useful, I will come,” she told young people across the country.

5. Understand how crucial knowing Black history is to the struggle and fight for it.

As a young person, Parks grew discouraged from reading books proclaiming Black inferiority. Discovering Black history in school was a Godsend for her.

In speeches, she would tell audiences how reading about earlier freedom fighters like Harriet Tubman, Phillis Wheatley, and Mary McLeod Bethune helped give her the courage to stand by her convictions.

“I read everything I could, first in school, and then later in magazines,” she said.

Understanding the history of the freedom fighters before her helped her to keep going. Learning the history of this country and of the Black struggle was crucial and she would fight for decades to get Black history included in the curriculums of Detroit schools.

To the end of her life in 2005, she was clear “the struggle continues.”

Jeanne Theoharis is the author of the award-winning “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” and “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks for Young People” with Brandy Colbert. The book was recently turned into a documentary directed by Johanna Hamilton and Yoruba Richen and executive produced by Soledad O’Brien now streaming on Peacock with a curriculum to use around the film and book.

Credit: Jeanne Theoharis

Credit: Jeanne Theoharis

This year, the AJC’s Black History Month series will focus on the role of resistance to forms of oppression in the Black community. In addition to the traditional stories that we do on African American pioneers, these pieces will run in our Living and A sections every day this month. You can also go to for more subscriber exclusives on the African American people, places and organizations that have changed the world.