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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Rosa Parks. En disant "Non", cette femme a changé les Etats-Unis

by Michel Muller

Rosa Parks. By saying “No”, this woman changed the United States

Translated Thursday 17 December 2015, by Adrian Jordan

A decisive action: refusing to give up her seat to a “White”. Several people had dared such a revolt before her, but without the resonance of rebellion evoked by this 42-year-old seamstress. In ultra-racist 1950s America, Martin Luther King gathers his first supporters. The movement for civil rights is set in motion.

“Every person operating a bus line in the city shall provide equal but separate accommodations for white people and negroes on his buses, by requiring the employees in charge thereof to assign passengers seats on the vehicles under their charge in such manner as to separate the white people from the negroes, where there are both white and negroes on the same car; provided, however, that negro nurses having in charge white children or sick or infirm white persons, may be assigned seats among white people.” This bureaucratic babble - entitled, “Sec. 10. Separation of races - Required” – is an extract from the Montgomery City Code of 1905, amended 1938, and remaining in force in 1955 - like many such laws that were still in force in southern US states.

December 1 of that same year, a cold and wet Thursday, a young woman from Montgomery, Alabama - 42-year-old seamstress, Rosa Parks - decided to put an end to the daily humiliation. Boarding her usual bus after work, she initially sat at the back of the bus, after having boarded at the front so the vassal of the bus company ensuring the abuse of civil rights could check her onboard, then got off and back on again by the centre door as required by the “rules”. At the third stop, a “white” passenger could not find a place at the front in the “Whites Only” section, and, according to the “rules”, the driver asked Rosa and three others sitting in the row to give up their seats.

They all obliged, except Rosa, who remained seated. After loudly proclaiming her refusal, she was arrested by two city police officers. On 5 December, she was fined 10 dollars, this being the equivalent of one day’s pay. [1]
Five years earlier, the same act of defiance cost the life of a 21-year-old soldier. Thomas Edward Brooks just grabbed an empty seat. Hit by a police officer, the young man tried to get away. He was killed by a bullet in the back. The story of Thomas Edward was unknown until the fiftieth anniversary of the bus boycott [2]

In 1944, however, a baseball player, Jackie Robinson, refused to give up his place to a white officer, at Fort Hood, Texas. He was acquitted by court martial... Though it was at the end of the Second World War, during which many black Americans were killed.
In March 1955, a young girl of 15, Claudette Colvin, was arrested after having refused to give up her seat to a white man. [3] She was an active youth member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), of which Rosa Parks was a leader. However, it turned out that Claudette was pregnant, an aggravating factor of this being that the father of her baby was an older, married, man. For the local head of the NAACP, ED Nixon, that prevented the young girl’s being defended by the organisation, as one could not make an exemplary case. It is usual to cite that decision against the backdrop of the dated mores of a black American community tied to religious practices.

However, this negates the destructive force of racism: Angela Davis recalls that, in the 1920s, a well known southern politician stated that “there was no such thing as a virtuous coloured girl over the age of fourteen “. She also said that, in the 1960s, black sociologist, Calvin Hernton, also wrote that black women had lost their own sense of self-worth and ended-up seeing themselves from the perspective of southerners. Thereby transferring blame to the victim, to the extent that black women were viewed as “loose women” or “whores”, and so their rape being licit, Angela Davis went on to explain. [4]

As with Claudette Colvin, the case of another young girl was ignored by the NAACP, which always followed the advice of its local lawyer – her father was thought to be an alcoholic. 18-years-old, civil rights activist, Mary Louise Smith, refused to give her place to a white passenger on 21 October 1955. She was fined 9 dollars (around 80 dollars today).

During the summer of 1955, Rosa Parks, like many of her US compatriots, had been deeply disgusted by the particularly savage racist murder of a 14-year-old black boy in Mississippi. Emmett Till, who lived Chicago with his mother, went on holiday to the home of his great uncle, in Money, Mississippi. On 24 April, he went with other kids to buy sodas at the local shop. Emmett tried to “seduce” the shop owner, Carolyn Bryant, even trying to “hold her hand”! News of the incident spread like lightning across the county. A few days later, on his return from a trip, Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy, learned of the “scandal” and decided to “teach” the boy “a lesson”. During the night of 28 April, he and his older brother took Emmett to a hangar where they beat and maimed him – poking out his eyes, shooting him, and throwing him alive into the Tallahatchie river.

His killers were quickly discovered. They denied the murder, claiming to have released Emmett alive. Mrs Till had her son’s body returned to Chicago where she insisted he lie in on open coffin (she had to remove the coffin nails herself). More than 50,000 people filed through the funeral parlour and intense feeling spread through the country. This did not prevent the jury from acquitting the wrongdoers after just one hour. They subsequently proudly recounted their deeds to the press, knowing they would not be troubled since “no one can be tried twice for the same crime”.

It is in that setting that Rosa Parks’ cause was immediately recognised as being the best to defend by the local chapter of the NAACP. Anyhow, she never doubted that she had unleashed a liberating storm, which even today, continues to rage despite everything.

The night following Rosa’s arrest in Montgomery, dozens of black American activists united at the request of a young pastor, Martin Luther King, in the Baptist church on Dexter Avenue, forming the Montgomery Improvement Association; demanding the right for black people, like white people, to sit anywhere on the bus, the same courtesy from bus drivers in respect of all people and recruitment of black people as bus drivers. Most certainly a modest demand, though revolutionary in the racist south.

December 5 - the day of Rosa Parks’ trial. On the eve of the trial, tens of thousands of leaflets were distributed in Montgomery, calling for black people to boycott buses. For a year and 16 days, tens of thousands of people, among them several “white skinned” compatriots, walked, without once using public transport. “Black” taxis charged their customers the same rate as the bus. Collections organised across the country facilitated the purchase of shoes and the setting up of a parallel bus service with minibuses. Racist incidents multiplied, like the burning down of Martin Luther King’s house, in acts of violent repression...

December 13 1956, the United States Supreme Court finally decided that segregation on buses was unconstitutional. The boycott ended on 21December. In a leaflet asking people to return to the buses, Martin Luther King stressed: “Remember that this is not a victory for Negroes alone, but for all Montgomery and the South. Do not boast! Do not brag!” [5]

It was not until after a decade of struggle and strife, the highpoint of which being the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”, or “Civil Rights March on Washington”, of August 1963, that the most overt institutional racism was outlawed by the Civil Rights Act ‘(1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). [6]

The end of “legal” segregation brought into the light of day the racist composition of US society, born of, in essence, a community of white colonisers and slavers. These deleterious origins had not been fully rebuffed in people’s minds nor in societal relations. Covert racism is still a terrible reality of the daily life of black Americans who form the finals links in this chain of oppression. Assuredly, the “N” word – starting with “N” for Nigger, is banned in public as an obscenity. However, residential segregation is a “normal practice”. More than a thousand “people of colour” or latin-American origin have been murder victims of city police in the course of duty.

Returning from Washington, after a two week study trip with friends, a college student from Saint-Denis told listeners of France Culture radio station, on 5 November 2015, that the most surprising thing during her visit was the college canteen: “Everyone forms groups. For example, there’s a table for Latinos, one table for Afro-Americans, a table for young girls in hijab;” “However,” she naively mused, “they are not at all racist.... But they don’t mix, unlike us.”
It is precisely this segregation, in the name of “separate development”, said to be egalitarian, of groups defined by clothes, religion, skin colour, and maybe one day eye colour? which firmly prevents encounters between people. “As kids we went into Strasbourg town centre in groups”, recounts rapper/film maker, Abd Al Malik, “because we were scared of this world belonging to white people and the rich - who were also afraid of us...” [7] This is where the scourge of racism spreads roots in fertile ground.

[1The original author of this work suffered a similar misadventure. His skin colour saved him from arrest during the summer of 1956 in Houston, Texas, after boarding a cross state bus at the rear, amid black passengers and not moving to a row of seats designated “Whites Only”. In addition to a fine of 10 dollars, this also merited questioning by the FBI for suspected “communism” on leaving for France two months later.

[2The Thunder of Angels”, Donnie Williams and Wayne Greenhaw, Chicago Review Press, 2007.

[3“Noire”, by Tania de Montaigne. Grasset, 2015

[4“Women, Race and Class”, Angela Y Davis, Vintage, 1983. See also "The Black Notebooks", Toi Derricotte, WW Norton & Co, 1999.

[6The Voting Rights Act aimed to stop discriminatory practices, particularly in the racist south, that forced black people to pay exorbitant fees or pass reading and civic instruction exams before they could vote.

[7“Télérama” 23 February 2015.

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