As a child growing up in 1950’s Mississippi, I thought we had the worst television reception in the world. Every night, broadcasters from our local channel interrupted the news to announce that they were experiencing technical difficulties. Little did I know at the time, the technical difficulties had nothing to do with broadcast signals, antennas, or any of the little doo-hickeys that made on-air programming possible. No, local stations in Mississippi purposely went dark whenever the national news reported something positive about civil rights. The “technical difficulties” were people like Mrs. Rosa Parks.
In 1955, Mississippi was waging an all-out war against integration, and the news out of Montgomery only strengthened its resolve to keep going. That year, the Mississippi legislature established and funded the Sovereignty Commission, a state agency whose charge was to preserve segregation. It was authorized to employ any means necessary, including tapping phones, monitoring mail, planting spies, and paying informers, to gather intelligence on private citizens suspected of working for civil rights. The Commission passed along surveillance files to law enforcement, the White Citizens Councils, and the Klan. They were also charged with ensuring that the state’s stand on segregation was always portrayed in a “positive light.” State media outlets were already controlled by arch segregationists, so local reporting on Montgomery conformed to the Commission’s standards. If national networks aired anything that was deemed favorable to civil rights, the local station interrupted the broadcast.
But there was one story developing next door in Alabama that terrified them.
On December 1, 1955, at 5:00 pm, Mrs. Rosa Parks left her job as assistant tailor at a downtown Montgomery department store. She had a lot on her mind. It was Thursday, and on Saturday she was presenting an NAACP workshop for college girls. Would anyone come? Montgomery’s black community was not known for its activism and especially not for its unity. Getting them to make a unified stand was nearly impossible. Earlier that summer a daughter of an old friend had been manhandled by a bus driver and then beaten and arrested by the police. And Claudette was only 15. For a while there was talk of a boycott, but the community could not come together even to protest on behalf one of their most vulnerable. So much more groundwork needed to be laid.
Of course, Mrs. Parks had had her own experiences with Montgomery city buses. Twelve years earlier, she had paid her fare at the front of the bus, and as segregation dictated, she was expected to get off and re-enter through the back door, so as not to pass through the white section. That winter’s day was rainy and cold, and she refused. The burly, red-faced bus driver lunged at her and threw her from his bus. Humiliated, she walked home five miles in the rain. She memorized his face and swore never to get on his bus again.
That driver could have done worse. There were plenty of instances of white drivers slapping, beating, and purposely catching black women in the doors and dragging them along the pavement. It could have been much worse if the driver had called the police, as one had with Claudette. Officers were known not only to brutally beat black riders with billy clubs but also to shoot them right there on the sidewalk for the showing the least resistance. If a woman was put into a patrol car, sexual assault was a real possibility before she even got the jail.
But that day, Mrs. Parks didn’t expect any trouble. It was only a 15-minute ride home to where her husband Raymond was preparing dinner. To be extra cautious, she had waited for a less crowded bus, so there wouldn’t be as much potential for confrontation. Absorbed in thought, she paid her ten-cent fare and took a seat in the middle of the bus, where the colored section began. Her seatmate was a black man, and two black women sat across the aisle. As the bus rattled along the avenue, Mrs. Parks could see the stores lit up with holiday decorations. Christmas was coming up fast. She began thinking about how she and Raymond were going to make this holiday special.
At the third stop, the white section of the bus filled. One white man was left standing. The driver shouted out, “Let me have those front seats.” He wanted not only Rosa’s seat but the entire row. She, the man next to her, and the women across the aisle would need to go to the back of the bus and stand, so one white man could sit down.
With a shock Rosa recognized the driver. He was the same one who had humiliated her 12 years before. She had sworn she would never allow another white man to belittle her like that again.
Rosa watched as the man next to her and the women across the aisle relinquished their seats.
In this moment, it all came down to Rosa Parks.
She had no way of knowing that this was not simply any moment but THE moment so many like she had worked for, the moment so many had planned for, prayed for. So many had died for. She had no way of knowing that her decision would determine if there would be a boycott; whether the world would ever hear of Martin Luther King Jr.; if, for the first time in history, a black community as large as Montgomery’s could stay unified for even one day, not to mention the 382 days the black community eventually boycotted the bus system, crippling a major city’s bus company; if indeed a flame would be ignited that inspired countless activists to launch their own civil rights campaigns, that would transform the South forever.
What she did know was that just a few months before, Emmitt Till, a fourteen year-old boy, had been brutally tortured and killed in Mississippi, only to have his confessed murders congratulated and acquitted. She thought of her proud grandfather who protected his own family from whites by keeping a loaded shotgun in the house. As a child, she had learned to sleep with her clothes on in case the Klan came during the night.
The driver now hovered over her, threatening. Not only did he have a gun, he had the police authority to use it. There was no end to the trouble he could cause her.
And Rosa Parks knew what trouble could look like. She had spent the past 11 years documenting racial brutality and sexual violence against blacks for the NAACP. She knew what whites were capable of. But now, in this moment, she wasn’t a passive interviewer or note taker, she was the potential victim.
“Are you going to stand up?” the driver asked Rosa Parks
Rosa looked him in the eye and gave the answer that changed everything. “No,” she said.
“Well, I’m going to have you arrested.”
“You may do that,” she replied evenly.
She watched as black men on the bus found reasons to flee. She knew other women on the bus. No one spoke up for her, even though she prayed they would. No one said, “If you arrest her, then you’ll have to take me, too.”
She was alone now. She later said it was one of the worst days of her life.
All this we know because history tells us. But we will never know the entire story. We are still piecing it together. With each new bit of testimony, each newly discovered document, and each resurfaced memory, the story shifts.
Before I began researching Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League, I was certain that black ministers and other men led the Civil Rights Movement. I was taught that the successes resulted from black male leaders negotiating with white male leaders. Yes, there was Rosa Parks, a silent symbol of black victimhood, a potent reminder of the endurance of the meek and downtrodden. But she was more of a symbol than a flesh and blood person.
Then I began interviewing African American women in Mississippi who had worked in the movement. They told stories of escaping the Klan by hiding in caskets; of facing down armed whites when trying to get their children through the door of a whites only school; of being beaten when trying to register to vote. Many of the ministers whom I thought of as movement leaders had actually been shamed into taking stands by these fearless women. Fannie Lou Hamer, a Mississippi fieldworker and civil rights force of nature, referred to those timid reverends as “chicken eatin’ preachers” and did so to their faces! Even worse, some of the most respected black preachers were actually on the payroll of the Sovereignty Commission, turning their own congregants over to the Klan. And last but not least, the publisher of the state’s only black newspaper was also an informant for the Commission.
I found that often the heroes and leaders were black women. And not just any black women, but usually the domestics and field workers, as opposed to the middle-class blacks. And I learned that these heroes’ heroes, on whose shoulders they stood, were not necessarily men but other women. People like Ella Baker and Septima Clark, like Jo Anne Robinson and, yes, Rosa Parks.
So it was no surprise as I dug deeper into the history of the Montgomery bus boycott that the same pattern emerged. Men at the podium, women on their feet.
Mrs. Parks said that when she was arrested and taken to jail, she didn’t believe anything would come of it. Three other black women had been jailed that year for challenging bus operators. Why should this time be any different?
But on the street, the rest of black Montgomery was learning that this time it was going to be different. An African American women’s group that had been pushing black leaders for years to do something about the shameful city bus situation decided to act unilaterally. They were not going to wait to get permission from Mrs. Parks or the ministers. By the next day, they had printed and delivered 52,500 handbills.
“Another Negro Woman has been arrested…Next time it could be your daughter or mother!” the flier threatened. A one-day boycott was announced for the following Monday. The message was clear. Black domestic workers, who made up most of the ridership, were getting the brunt of the abuse. Black men could not defend them, and whites were unwilling to. Black women had to do it for themselves.
By Friday night, the day after Mrs. Parks’ arrest, every black woman, man, and child knew the plan for the boycott. It set off a firestorm among the seventy percent of black women who worked as domestics. Mrs. Parks was the straw that broke the camel’s back. As one maid explained, “Miss Rosie Parks, one of our nice respectable ladies was put in jail, and folks got full and jest wouldn’t take no more….” Another witness said, “Not only was Mrs. Parks arrested, but every Negro in Montgomery felt arrested.”
The day was rainy and bone-cold, not good weather for staying off a bus. Mrs. Parks remembered looking out of her window to see the sidewalks choked with maids, cooks, and washerwomen walking to work under a cloud of black umbrellas. All the buses passed empty.
Later that day, when she left the court building after her trial, Mrs. Parks found five hundred supporters- mostly women- chanting from the steps. “They’ve messed with the wrong one now!”
A mass rally was planned that night to cap off the one-day boycott. The preachers had to get their act together and select a leader to press on with the boycott. No one really wanted the job. It looked too doubtful and, considering the past, was bound to be short-lived, a humiliation for those out front. The new preacher in town, Martin Luther King Jr., surprised everyone and took up the challenge.
When the ministers arrived at the rally that evening, they found no timid souls. Five thousand people, mostly female domestic workers, had filled the sanctuary to capacity. Outside, another ten thousand crammed the steps, packed the sidewalks, and stopped traffic for six blocks. No one had ever seen this many Montgomery blacks in one place and the police were helpless to contain it.
Emboldened, the minsters gave their fiery speeches. People sat, stood, clapped, and held hands while tears streamed down their faces. The crowd called out for Mrs. Parks. When she asked if she should speak, she was told by one of the ministers, “No. You have said enough.”
The powers-that-be decided that Mrs. Parks would be more useful as a public symbol. The spotlight belonged to the men, but it was left to Mrs. Parks and the other women to do everything else: strategize, organize, administer car pools, raise money, do the walking, and absorb the brunt of the retaliation. They didn’t complain. The movement was more important than anything else.
But the presence of these women could not be denied, and it relentlessly drove the movement and its leaders forward. When one woman was asked in court who the movement’s leaders were, she replied, “Our leaders is just we ourself.”
In their solidarity, black domestics had discovered what King called their “somebodyness.” They stood up to their white employers and were fired from their jobs. As they walked, white segregationists threw balloons filled with urine from passing cars, hit them with rocks, and pelted them with rotten vegetables. When they had to pass by armed and jeering whites stationed on the street, they would not be cowed. One maid said, “Look at them red bastards over their watching us. They got them guns, but us ain’t skeered.” Another said, “When they find out you ain’t scared of ‘em, they leave you alone. The son of bitches.”
In March, Mrs. Parks was arrested once more, along with 181 others, on the charge of conspiracy. This time, scores of female domestics descended on the courthouse. They wore bandanas and men’s hats and had their dresses rolled up. The police tried to restore order, but the women responded by surging forward. When a policeman reached for his gun, one domestic shouted, “If you hit one of us, you’ll not leave here alive!”
That defiance didn’t stop with Montgomery.
Despite the national media being slow to catch on to the momentousness of the boycott, and the local press deliberately downplaying the significance or censoring it outright, word got out. It even into trickled into Mississippi, where racism was even more virulent, organized and institutionalized.
In Alabama law enforcement was known to cooperate with the Klan; in Mississippi, law enforcement was the Klan. County sheriffs were seen as complicit either in carrying out or covering up three murders in 1955 alone. One of course was Emmitt Till, killed for “whistling at a white woman.” Lamar Smith was shot in broad daylight on the courthouse lawn for trying to register to vote. George W. Lee, a preacher, businessman, and outspoken civil rights activist, was killed by a shotgun blast from a passing car just before midnight.
In spite of state censorship laws banning the transportation of anti-segregationist literature across state lines, random issues of African-American newspapers like the Chicago Defender or the New York Amsterdam News found their way into the state. A single, tattered copy was often passed from hand to hand, discussed in black churches, pool halls, barbershops, juke joints and all other gathering places outside the white man’s line of vision. Yes, they knew about Rosa Parks in Mississippi.
And then there were the maids.
The maids of Mississippi, just like the ones in Alabama, saw themselves reflected in Mrs. Parks’ experience. If the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission had a surveillance counterpart in the black community, it would have been the network of domestic help who spent their days cooking, washing, tending children, and cleaning their white employers homes, all the while listening to the most intimate details of their lives.
Ostensibly, the work of maids was to perform the physical tasks involved in taking care of the white home and its inhabitants. A critical yet never mentioned part of the job description was tending to the emotional needs of the family. Domestic help helped shepherd white folks through their most private moments. They were also expected to affirm the opinions white folks had of themselves, of being benevolent, fair, wise, and of course, socially, intellectually, and morally superior.
When I look back at this era, the best analogy I can offer by which to describe the black presence in the white home is this: the maid turned herself into a one-way mirror. She became adept at hiding her true self while, at the same time, reflecting an image of her white employers that pleased, flattered, cajoled, and but never threatened.
We white Southerners loved how we looked in the eyes of our maids and never doubted their loyalty. We talked as openly in their presence as if they were mere furniture.
Yet that one-way mirror of Jim Crow allowed domestic servants to pool privileged information in order to better resist oppression. One woman I interviewed had been the maid to a prominent white preacher in my hometown of Laurel. He also happened to be an active member of the local Klan that had been terrorizing the county’s freedom workers. Like most white employers, he talked freely in front of his maid, putting his trust in that mirrored reflection. All the while she ran information back to civil rights activists, warning them where and when the Klan would strike next. And in 1956, one of the topics at every white dinner table in Mississippi was that “uppity colored girl” over in Alabama.
Many black domestic workers, inspired by the likes of Rosa Parks, became invaluable in the fight for the rights of their people. Rosa Parks taught them when they, the least of the least came together, nothing could stop them.
The editor of the Christian Century saw that as well. This is what he wrote about that evening in March when the unruly mob of domestic workers in Montgomery stood down the police at the court building: “That night black women served notice that they were no longer going to be violated by or pushed around by white police officers. They put their bodies on the line in defense of their humanity, something anyone watching could see. The standoff marked the first fateful assertion of their full dignity as human beings.”
After 382 consecutive days of the black community’s solidarity, the Supreme Court handed down its decision declaring segregation on the buses unconstitutional, the Klan decided to remind working class blacks that things would never really change. Over forty-cars of white-hooded goons drove slowly through the quarters to invoke the old terror. The inhabitants hooted and shook their fists. Deflated, the Klan retreated.
A domestic worker put it more succinctly. “They bit the lump off and us making ‘em chew it. Colored folks ain’t like they used to be. They ain’t scared no more.”
After the boycott, Mrs. Parks was asked if it were true that she didn’t get up that day on the bus because she was tired. She replied, “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day…no, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
That is what her simple, “No,” meant to millions of black women, who existed on the bottom rung of the ladder of power. These people knew about giving in. Black working women saw themselves and their lives in Mrs. Parks’ action.
As poet Nikki Giovanni, said in her poem, “Harvest”:
…Something needs to be said…about Rosa Parks…
other than her feet…were tired
…Lots of people…on that bus…and many before…
and since…had tired feet…lots of people…still do…
they just don’t know…where to plant them…
Mrs. Park’s “No” showed a million women where to plant their feet.