By Charlene Crowell
During the 1999 State of the Union Address, then-President Bill Clinton recognized a gray-haired Black woman who teetered as she rose to accept the applause of everyone in the chamber of the House of Representatives.
The irony is that despite the presidential recognition, her proudest moment came when she sat down.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa McCauley Parks—alone and unaided—refused to be removed from a passenger’s seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. That quiet and solemn refusal began a movement that forced a nation to honor its promises of freedom, justice and equality for all.
As much as America has honored the memory of Mrs. Parks, it was not the first time that a small and fearless Black woman took a stand for freedom.
More than a century earlier, another woman who could not read, faithfully led escaping slaves by a heavenly map pointing the way to freedom. Through her sheer determination, the Underground Railroad remains a much-heralded legacy of a brave woman’s contribution to freedom. Harriet Tubman (1823-1919), who is credited as being the conductor of the Underground Railroad, stood only five-feet tall. But to this day, her character casts a giant shadow.
As a young slave yearning to be free and despite her illiteracy, Tubman was well-versed in the Bible, music and folklore. Her indomitable faith met its divine providence in 1849 at the age of 26 when she escaped to freedom in Pennsylvania—alone and unaided. Within a year of her escape, she returned south to begin a series of journeys to free her relatives. By 1857, Tubman’s entire family escaped to freedom, too, thanks to Harriet’s incredible memory, knowledge of nature and the stars that helped her to chart a path to freedom.
Tubman’s fundamental goal for the freedom of all slaves led to an association with people without regard to gender, color or economic status. For example, before John Brown was executed in 1859 for his own war against slavery, he and Tubman became close friends. More importantly, this uneducated, but highly-principled woman became an effective and acknowledged leader in the abolitionist movement.
During the Civil War and Reconstruction, Tubman assisted Union Army Colonel James Montgomery in battling Confederate troops. She also nursed sick and wounded soldiers as well as taught self-sufficiency to newly-freed Blacks.
Following the Civil War, Tubman worked closely with Black churches where she took an interest in the elderly and children. In her own congregation, Tubman collected clothes for destitute children and helped find homes for the elderly.
John Tubman, her first husband, did not join her in running to freedom and died in 1867. Two years later, Tubman married a Union soldier, Nelson Davis, who was 22 years her junior. As a result of Davis’ war service, Harriet became a war widow and was able to draw a pension after Davis’ death.
In 1896, she purchased 25 acres of land that adjoined her own home in Auburn, New York. That land was developed and became the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People. It opened in 1908 and became Tubman’s home. Years later, Tubman fell ill with pneumonia and died on March 10, 1913.
When the United States Postal Service began the Black Heritage USA series of commemorative stamps in 1978, the first Black person honored was Harriet Tubman.
History teaches us how freedom’s torch is passed from one generation to the next. One month before Harriet Tubman died, Rosa McCauley was born in Tuskegee, Alabama—the first of two children born to a carpenter father and a mother who taught in rural schools. Following the birth of her brother, Rosa’s father moved north and her mother, Leona, returned to her childhood home in Pine Level, Alabama.
While her mother was away teaching, Rosa helped with household chores and helped with her aging and ailing grandparents as best she could. So, it was little Rosa who was left to cook, quilt and provide for the family. At age 11, Rosa moved to Montgomery to live with her aunt, Fanny Williamson. While living there, Rosa was able to attend a private school for girls in exchange for cleaning two classrooms as payment for her tuition. While enrolled in Montgomery’s Booker T. Washington High School, Rosa was forced to drop out to care for her mother when she became seriously ill.
It was during those out-of-school years that Rosa learned about the hardships of slavery and the hopes of emancipation held by the enslaved. Many of the lessons for life that she later called upon as an adult were first shared with her by her maternal grandparents.
At the age of 19, Rosa McCauley wed a young Montgomery barber, Raymond Parks, in December 1932. As a young bride, Rosa contributed to the household income by holding a number of jobs like sewing at home, working as a domestic or office clerk and selling insurance.
Most of all, the young couple shared a concern for inequality and segregation. Raymond was a member of the National Committee to Save the Scottsboro Boys. In that case, eight Black youths ranging in ages from 13 to 19, were accused of raping two adult white women while all of them hopped a freight train. The case of the Scottsboro Boys made headlines nationally. Raymond Parks often took the young men food while they remained in jail awaiting trial.
In 1943, Rosa Parks joined the Montgomery Chapter of the NAACP becoming one of its first Negro women members. She also became an activist in efforts to register Montgomery Negroes to vote. And whenever she could, Rosa avoided the colored-only fountains and elevators. Many days, rather than ride a segregated bus, she walked home.
But on Thursday evening, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks decided she was too tired to walk. Instead, she would ride home on the Cleveland Avenue bus from her job at a downtown Montgomery department store.
In those days, the first 10 seats on Montgomery buses were always reserved for whites. If the white section filled up, the Negro or colored sections of the bus were simply made smaller. On that fateful December day, the white section of the bus filled up and a white bus driver asked four Negroes to move. When Rosa Parks refused, the driver called the police. Twelve years earlier, Rosa had been evicted from another Montgomery bus by the same driver.
Recalling the events of that day, Rosa Parks said, “I didn’t consider myself breaking any segregation laws…I just felt resigned to give what I could to protest against the way I was being treated.”
Parks’ arrest came at about six in the evening, charged with violating a Montgomery city ordinance. Her one phone call from jail was to E.D. Nixon, another Montgomery NAACP officer. With Nixon’s assistance, Rosa was released on $100 bond. Nixon also learned while posting her bond that it was the first time a Negro had been charged with violating the city’s segregation code. Trial was scheduled for December 5.
On December 2, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. received a phone call from Nixon. Recounting the events of the previous day, Nixon told Dr. King, “We have taken this thing too long already. We got to boycott the buses…Make it clear to the white folks we ain’t taking this type of treatment any longer.”
Dr. King agreed and offered Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where he was pastor as a meeting place for community and church leaders to decide the best course of action. That evening, nearly 50 ministers and civic leaders attended the gathering and agreed that the bus boycott would begin on December 5. Fifty-two thousand flyers announcing the boycott were distributed.
A second meeting was held at Montgomery’s Holt Street Baptist Church and attracted over 7,000 Negroes. At this mass meeting, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed.
When Rosa Parks was found guilty of charges and fined $10 plus an additional $4 for court costs, she refused to pay and appealed her case to the Montgomery Circuit Court. After her release from jail, she went back to work only to be told that she was fired. The combination of threatening phone calls, her work with the Montgomery Improvement Association and an increasing number of speaking requests all took a toll on her chances for employment as well as her marriage.
For more than a year, Montgomery’s Black residents walked, hitchhiked, bicycled, taxied and used every available means of transportation except city buses. Black taxi companies reduced regular rates to the same ten cents charged by the bus company. As time passed, however, they were forced to revert to the regular 45-cent charge.
For most Montgomery Blacks, walking seemed to do just fine.
On February 1, 1956, the MIA filed a federal lawsuit challenging the city’s segregated transit system. Months later on June 2, the federal court declared that segregated bus seating was unconstitutional. Later on, December 20, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling and ordered Montgomery officials to integrate.
That federal ruling brought an end to 381 days of boycotting that brought Alabama’s capital city to its economic knees. In the year of the boycott, the transit company lost $250,000 in revenue. The city itself lost thousands of dollars in retail sales.
By 1957, the desegregation boycott took a different kind of toll on Rosa Parks’ life. Unable to find employment and her husband’s health failing, the couple moved to Detroit where Rosa’s mother and brother resided. Mrs. Parks also began working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Detroit office.
Offered a staff position with then-Congressman John Conyers in 1968, Mrs. Parks remained on staff until her retirement in 1988. But her continued quest for freedom was met with honors and accolades. A year after retiring and on the silver anniversary of the Civil Rights Act in 1989, she was invited as a guest to the White House.
As a part of the celebration for her 75th birthday in the nation’s capital in 1990, Mrs. Parks responded to well-wishers by saying, “Pray and work for the freedom of Nelson Mandela and our brothers in South Africa.”
Her prayers were answered on June 20 when Nelson Mandela’s walk to freedom ended the 71-year-old anti-apartheid leader’s political imprisonment.
Randall Robinson, founder of TransAfrica, an organization that works to influence American foreign policy in Africa and the Caribbean, once said, “The blood that runs through us is deeper than the seas that separate us.”
Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks would certainly agree. From slave ships to slave auctions, plantations, prison and more, the African-American experience reveals that our shared history places us far more in common than in conflict.
May their lives be a fount of pride and hope for ours and future generations.