Portrayed by Becky Stone
Sometimes when the status quo needs to be shaken up, it is necessary to take a stand. Other times, one must courageously take a seat. Rosa Parks is best known for being arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat. But Parks was not an apolitical, middle-aged lady whose fatigue kept her seated. Hers was an act that radically challenged America to reinvent itself.
Founded on the opinion that human beings can be owned by others, America placed its democracy in the hands of free white landed males. It took a bloody Civil War before America abolished slavery. Soon after, Jim Crow laws, lynching and voter suppression changed it back into a nation where rights were brutally divided along color lines.
By the 1950’s a different America was emerging. Brown vs Board of Education ruled racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. And a woman named Rosa Parks and a whole new concept of Civil Rights was about to reinvent American democracy.
Becky Stone, holds a BA from Vassar College in drama and a MA in Elementary Educational Counseling from Villanova University. She is a former teacher of theater and chorus and theater appreciation at Veritas Christian Academy in Fletcher, NC. While raising their four children, she helped her husband start GreenPrints Magazine, a garden quarterly. She continues as the Circulation Manager.
Becky has been a regular storyteller-performer at the Biltmore Estate for many years. She has performed as a storyteller at schools, libraries, and festivals throughout Western North Carolina specializing in African-American, Appalachian, and world tales. She also researched, developed, and performed historical programs for the Center for Diversity Education in Asheville, The North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching, the Asheville Contemporary Dance Theater, and the University of North Carolina at Asheville. She has also performs in several area theater companies.
In 2003 Becky performed his first Chautauqua character: Pauli Murray, civil rights activist, lawyer, author of States Laws on Race and Color and first black women ordained an Episcopal priest. She has since added Harriet Tubman and Maya Angelou to her repertoire. She has performed in numerous Chautauquas nationwide.
Rosa Parks, even as a child, challenged Jim Crow. She knew her rights as a child of God. That knowledge fueled her sense of civil rights and personal dignity. She seemed fearless. After all, she had witnessed her grandfather taking an armed stand against the Ku Klux Klan. She dared to throw bricks at white boys taunting her brother. She stood up to angry white mothers. All of which led her grandmother to exclaim, “Rosa Louise MacCauley! You’re going to be lynched before you get out of high school!”
As Rosa grew older, her fears about lynching increased. However, her commitment to changing America increased as well. She married a man already involved in raising money for the defense of the Scottsboro boys. She became the secretary of the Montgomery Chapter of the NAACP, a job that involved recording incidents of civil rights abuses and police brutality as well as writing protest letters to legislators and newspapers. Rosa challenged segregation at every turn with only partial success until the day she took action to defend her personal rights and suddenly galvanized the Black people of Montgomery to take a stand together. Change in America was on the way.
Rosa had not travelled outside of Alabama. She had no idea of how life may have been different in other parts of the country. Why would she not assume that life across our nation was virtually the same as life in Alabama? What she did know was that in spite of a constant barrage of letter-writing, our Federal government had not passed an anti-lynching bill. (That did not happen until 2018.) She knew personally of cases of lynching (mob violence), rape, and murder that were not reported in the newspapers, let alone in police or court records. She did know that the Freedom Train had the stipulation that all citizens should have access to see our nation’s founding documents or else the Train would not comply with the request to stop in their town. She did know that school segregation had come to an end with Brown v Board of Education Topeka KS even though Montgomery did not comply. She did know that she had the right to vote even though only 31 black voters were registered in Montgomery. It took her three tries over three years to register and finally vote in 1946 at the age of 33. Something was wrong. There was a huge discrepancy between who we professed to be and who we actually were. How to change it? Rosa was going to try.
How do you convince the people in power that those who were born here and live here are citizens that deserve all citizenship rights? These are rights, not privileges, and they are given, not earned. They are fundamental. In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed in his State of the Union address, that there are four freedoms that are essential for humankind – freedom of speech and of worship and freedom from want and from fear. Black Americans were not enjoying any of those freedoms.
Rosa was lucky. She had been raised in a family that did not accept crippling limitations. They modeled for her a determination to live fully and proudly. The man she married, ten years older than she, encouraged her to get her high school diploma. He supported her work with the NAACP. He reluctantly agreed to her serving as the case to challenge the bus segregation laws of Montgomery, and finally agreed to moving to Detroit when she no longer felt safe in Montgomery. Their marriage seemed to be a true partnership of love respect.
Rosa had the heart of a warrior, but she needed more than heart to push for change. She had never talked about race outside of her family. Her husband was the first outsider with whom she had discussed those issues. She needed to learn that race issues needed to be publicly discussed if they were to find effective ways to work toward change. She did that during her 12 years as secretary of the Montgomery Chapter of the NAACP with E.D. Nixon as its president. Nixon was a Pullman porter. He talked like a workingman and understood the working person’s existence and took action on their behalf. He moved the NAACP from being a club of professionals who did not want to make too many waves to a group that championed everyone’s causes. He more than doubled the membership. Rosa, as his secretary, became his right hand assistant. She read, she wrote, sought affidavits, she went to meetings, she spoke at conventions. She learned how to confront with persistence. Nixon had heard from A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, “Nothing counts but pressure, pressure, more pressure and more pressure through broad, organized, aggressive mass action.” That became their mantra. Rosa helped Nixon run voter registration campaigns. She regularly led her Youth Council to the library to demand admittance, only to be refused time and time again. Rosa pressured the Montgomery Commissioners to allow everyone to see the Freedom Train so that her Youth Council could view the original documents of the promise of America – the Declaration and the Constitution. She joined Nixon in taking students to the white elementary school after school desegregation was supposed to end. She traveled to small towns in Alabama interviewing victims of racist violence – listening, encouraging – with the hope of taking legal action. She had begun to overcome her inherent fear and distrust of white people through work experiences at the Maxwell Air Force base and through white allies such as Clifford and Virginia Durr. It was Virginia Durr who facilitated Park’s attending a week long workshop on grass roots organizing at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. By 1955, Rosa was a respected and familiar leader in the black community.
In spite of her growing strength and expertise in political activism, Parks had no idea that her simple stance in 1955 would precipitate the boycott. Her decision opened the door for those in the black community who were primed for action. Even the leaders of the boycott were not sure where it would lead. Their stated goal at the beginning of negotiations was a modification of existing segregation laws, not the end of segregation on the busses. It was the NAACP’s intention to take Rosa’s case to the Supreme Court, but her case never made it out of the Alabama appellate system. Another case had to be filed that eventually led to the Supreme Court decision in their favor. The white people of Montgomery were confident that “their Negroes” were happy and not able to conduct a successful boycott. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was the first and last time such a large group of African Americans had united and persisted in organized protest over such a long period. There was a dramatic increase in the number of grass roots protests and boycotts in the South after the Montgomery boycott ended. The boycott may not have led to any concrete change, but it had led to a change in self-perception, empowering people to come to their own defense and to change America.
Rosa had a vision of what America could be. An entire population began to share that vision. And most importantly, they had found a way to move toward that vision.
1913 – Born in Tuskeegee, AL
1932 – Marries Raymond Parks
1943 – Joins Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and becomes the secretary under E.D. Nixon’s presidency
– Thrown off a city bus by James Blake, the same driver who has her arrested in 1955.
1945 – Successfully registers to vote on her third attempt
1949 – Helps start the Montgomery NAACP Youth Council, the beginning of her life-long commitment to youth
1955 – Attends the Highlander Folk School, a training center for activists
– Arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus
– The Montgomery bus boycott begins, ending just over a year later (381 days)
1957 – Moves to Detroit after death threats and both she and her husband losing their jobs
1963 – Participates in the great March to Freedom (Detroit) and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (D.C.)
1965 – Begins 23 years as manager of the Detroit office of Rep. John Conyers
1987 – Establishes the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development
1996 – Receives the Medal of Freedom from Pres. Clinton
1999 – Receives the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor
2005 – Dies and is the first African American woman to lie in state in the US Capitol building
I don’t believe in gradualism or that whatever is to be done for the better should take forever to do.
Action is my domain. It’s not what I say but what I do that matters.
Segregation itself is vicious. To my mind, there was no way you could make segregation decent or nice or acceptable.
You died a little each time you found yourself face to face with this kind of discrimination.
By the time I was 6, I was old enough to realize that we were not actually free.
Love, not fear, must be our guide.
When one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear.
I felt I had been destroyed too long ago. I had hope that the young people would be benefitted by equal education, should the decision of 1954 be carried out as it should have been.
I would be lynched rather than be run over by them.
I felt that I was lynched many times in mind and spirit.
Your behavior must be above reproach . . . This is how you gain the respect of others.
* Rosa Parks: A Life by Douglas Brinkley (2000) Thoroughly researched, very readable, encompassing biography. Even the bibliographical notes are a good read.
* Rosa Parks: My Story by Rosa Parks with Jim Haskins (1999) You can hear Rosa’s voice as you read this. She has a heart for young people, and this was written for them. Gives her overview with personal insights.
* The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis (2013) Written with an eye toward understanding the things in Park’s life that contributed to her activism and militancy. Your idea of who Rosa Parks was may change.
(Starred items are available in the Greenville County Library System.)