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  Fall 2005

Farewell to a Famous Organizer

Rosa Parks, probably the most well known female organizer in the US, died on October 24 at age 92. She was trained as an organizer at the Highlander Folk School along with Septima Clark who joined Parks in Montgomery. She was the secretary to Memphis NAACP. Her husband was the co-founder.

After being trained as an activist, Ms. Parks worked with the grassroots groups of African American organizers who decided to force integration of Montgomery bus systems. During 1954 to 1955 the groups were searching for a woman to do an act of Civil Disobedience—refuse to move to the back of he bus. They planned to use this arrest as a means to get publicity and spark a boycott of the buses. They chose a Black woman because they made up the majority of riders of the bus (still true today.)

Two younger women had been arrested before Rosa, also for refusing to move back in the bus. But the activists decided not to use their actions to spark the boycott. One woman was a young, unmarried mother and the other had a petty criminal record. The group asked Rosa to get arrested because she was a “respectable” middle-class married woman.

The minute Parks was arrested; the activists went into action. They photographed her arrest and booking. And they sent press releases across the country. Jo Ann Robinson and other members of the Women’s Political Counsel began working a phone tree and wrote up signs and flyers urging women not to take the bus. Thanks to the sacrifice of poor women across Montgomery, the movement was able to win a victory over segregation.

Rosa Park’s act of Civil Disobedience followed in the footstep’s of other famous African American organizers before her. Ida B. Wells, publisher of the newspaper, Free Speech, and anti-lynch crusader, refused to move to the Black section of the Chesapeake and Ohio train car in Memphis in December 1884. Three White men forcibly dragged her from the train. In her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, Wells wrote that her shirt was torn, but she wasn’t injured. She was angry however.

Wells immediately went to a lawyer and sued the railroad. She won $500. The Memphis headlines stated “Darky Damsel Obtains a Verdict for Damages against Chesapeake and Ohio.” Unfortunately in 1887 a judge reversed her victory, writing that she had “harrassed with a view to this suit…not in good faith to obtain a comfortable seat for a short ride.”

Another role model for Rosa Parks was Bayard Rustin, African American organizer and musician. Rustin is best known for organizing the March on Washington for Martin Luther King in 1963. Rustin was a Quaker and a pacifist who had studied in India with Ghandi. He passed on his knowledge of non-violent civil disobedience to Martin Luther King.

In 1947 Bayard Rustin organized the Journey of Reconciliation in North Carolina with three other New Yorkers. Their plan was to integrate the interstate buses. They were arrested at the beginning of their journey. Rustin was sentenced to 30 days on the chain gang for daring to sit on a bus with White people.

Rustin is not as well known as Parks, Wells or King because he was gay. As a gay, African American, his co-organizers felt it necessary to keep him in the background. But his music lives on. And the success of his March on Washington is evidence of his genius as an organizer. Check out the video of his life called Brother Outsider, the Life of Bayard Rustin.


Pat Gowens

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