Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The women behind Rosa Parks

Today's Hutchins Lecture sponsored by the Center for the Study of the American South, by Danielle McGuire, a fellow this year at the Center, was a fascinating study of the decade-long movement of African American women in Montgomery, Alabama who made the 1955 boycott happen. At the heart of their anger was much more than not being able to sit where they pleased on a bus: it was sexual abuse.

It was near midnight on September 3, 1944, when the Rock Hill Holiness church, in Abbeville, Alabama ended its evening service. After a night of singing and praying, Recy Taylor and her friend started towards home. Strolling along the Abbeville-Headland Highway toward town, Recy Taylor, a twenty-four-year-old African-American mother and sharecropper, noticed the same green sedan, packed full of gawking young white men, drive by at least three times. When the car rolled to a stop just a few feet behind the black women, seven men with knives and guns got out of the car and walked toward them. Herbert Lovett pointed a gun at Taylor’s head and ordered her into the car. Lovett’s friends piled in and they sped away into the night. Ten minutes later, the car rattled down a tractor path and stopped on a vacant patch of land. Standing beneath a grove of pecan trees, Lovett demanded Taylor get out of the car, remove her clothes, or, he threatened, “I will kill you and leave you down here in the woods.” Lovett held Taylor at gunpoint while each of the white men took turns “ravishing” her. After the gang rape, Lovett blindfolded Taylor, pushed her into the car, and dropped her off in the middle of town.
When the Montgomery branch of the Alabama NAACP heard about the brutal assault a few days later, they sent an investigator. Her name was Rosa Parks.
A Montgomery minister named Martin Luther King Jr. rose to a leadership position soon after Rosa Parks' arrest on December 1, 1955, but as McGuire persuasively reminds us, the movement belonged to the women.

Thus I have to question one sentence in the Chapel Hill narrative of the 1947 "freedom riders" story: "[Bayard] Rustin's writings directly inspired Ms. Rosa Parks, in 1955, and the Freedom Riders of 1960-61, to challenge Jim Crow segregation on buses and other souther institutions."

When the case over the Montgomery boycott came to trial in a federal courtroom, the women plaintiffs were asked pointedly whether it was Dr. King who put them up to it. Said sixteen-year-old Claudette Colvin, "No, sir. We haven't changed our ideas. It has been in me ever since I was born."

(See Frank Sikora, The Judge: The Life & Opinions of Alabama's Frank M. Johnson, Jr. (1992).)

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