Before the Bus
During Black History Month we often hear about Rosa Parks, but that recognition is often limited to her brave stance to refuse to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This act of defiance led to the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, and the rise to prominence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In fact, Parks was preceded by a young, fifteen-year-old freedom fighter named Claudette Colvin. After learning about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad in school, Claudette stirred up the courage to refuse to give up her seat on a Montgomery public bus. This act of civil disobedience took place a full nine months before the more publicized actions of Rosa Parks.
It was March 2, 1955 when Colvin made her stand, by refusing to stand. As she told The Guardian, she had help. “It felt as if Harriet Tubman’s hand was pushing me down on the one shoulder, and Sojourner Truth’s hand was pushing me down on the other. Learning about those two women gave me the courage to remain seated that day.”
Colvin was arrested, and her case gained a lot of local attention, but Dr. King wasn’t sure the teenager was the right face for a more organized effort to fight the segregation laws in Alabama. When she became pregnant a few months later, her obscurity would be guaranteed.
She believed that the local civil rights leaders, “wanted someone, I believe, who would be impressive to white people, and be a drawing. You know what I mean? Like the main star. And they didn’t think that a dark-skinned teenager, low income without a degree, could contribute.”
Not every prominent figure in the Black community of Montgomery ostracized her. Rosa Parks was a seamstress and a secretary for the NAACP. Parks befriended Colvin after that incident; thinking that it was outrageous that the teen was sent to jail instead of a juvenile center for such a small violation.
According to Colvin, “Rosa was just like her name, soft-spoken, soft-talking.”
It is almost a shame that Parks is remembered solely for being stoic. The images of her sitting in that bus seat are ingrained in our minds. We have seen them in history books, and in documentaries. Rosa Parks, calm and collected, solid as a rock…refusing to move. Over a decade before those images were captured, Parks was anything but stoic. She was always in motion.
Recy Taylor was twenty-four when she was raped by six white men in Abbeville, Alabama in 1944. The NAACP sent Rosa Parks to investigate the case, and to try to rally support for the prosecution of the assailants. This wasn’t the mild-mannered woman with her purse resting on her lap; staring out a bus window. Parks was active, but still refused to be moved by white men.
This time, it was the deputy sheriff in Abbeville, Lewey Corbitt. The lawman drove past the house where Mrs. Parks was staying, and screamed, “I don’t want any troublemakers here in Abbeville,” he warned her. “If you don’t go, I’ll lock you up.”
His words seem almost laughable with the luxury of hindsight. Corbitt tried to shake the unshakable woman, Mrs. Rosa Parks. He tried to intimidate the woman who was able to hold her ground against an entire Jim Crow culture that tried to force her to the back. That bravado didn’t arrive one day on public transportation in Montgomery. Rosa Parks developed that steadfastness during battles like that one in Abbeville.
After a grand jury refused to prosecute, Parks was one of the organizers of an emergency meeting at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. The Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor became a national organization after the meeting in November of 1944. This group attracted a number of prominent civil rights leaders; most notably W.E.B. DuBois and Mary Church Terrell. Langston Hughes even got involved in advocacy for Mrs. Taylor.
The pressure mounted on Alabama Governor Chauncey Sparks, who was forced to investigate the matter on his own. By the time he had done this, four of the men had admitted to having intercourse with Mrs. Taylor. In an insult that is familiar to many survivors, however, those men claimed that she engaged in the acts willingly. Claims like these remind all women that this was not just a civil rights issue based on race. Yes, it was the 1940s in the segregated South, but abusers and rapists often follow a similar pattern.
Willie Joe Culpepper was one of the men in question, and even he admitted that the other men were lying about the rape. He stated, “She was crying and asking us to let her go home to her husband and baby.”
Recy Taylor faced two overwhelming obstacles in 1944 Alabama, and that was that she was Black and that she was a woman. To truly be against abuse, we need to view these situations through the lens of intersectionality. Being a marginalized member of a marginalized group, Taylor didn’t have a chance in a system that was stacked against her in two different ways. A second grand jury refused to prosecute, even with the four confessions, on Valentine’s Day of 1945.
Still, it was this case that played a major part in raising the profile of Rosa Parks. It was through trying to help a woman get justice against her rapists that Rosa Parks started to find her footing as an activist. Helping women in the fight against sexual-assault initiated her into the cause of racial and gender justice.
Admissions of Wrong-Doing
The 40s, 50s, and even 60s continued on with different faces being put forth in the Civil Rights Movement. Parks wouldn’t just be an advocate a decade later, when she would be the one front-and-center in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dr. Martin Luther King became a national hero. The world forgot about Recy Taylor for decades, until 2011. It was that year when the mayor of Abbeville and the Alabama legislature finally released an official apology to Taylor.
Any survivor who has ever been denied an admission of guilt knows the importance of these symbolic gestures. Of course, justice should have been done back in 1944. Still, the denials can be just as damaging as the acts, themselves. The four men admitted to committing these savage and horrific acts, but tried to claim that the victim wanted to be raped. The system believed them for over half a century. To just have the government finally admit that she was right, had to provide some sense of closure that would have seemed impossible back on that difficult Valentine’s Day.
Those apologies came after the release of the book “At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power” by professor Danielle L. McGuire, and the documentary “The Rape of Recy Taylor.” It was only by shining a spotlight on the issue that any justice was realized. That is the entire purpose of our organization Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence. We know that telling our stories and the telling the stories of other survivors can only lead to more-and-more positive things. Every testimonial, and every celebration can show that we are not alone. Recy Taylor finally got an apology. She was vindicated. Someone finally said, “we believe you.”
We’re in This Together
Recy Taylor wasn’t the only woman Parks tried to help in the battle against sexual violence and discrimination. Gathering testimonials of hostile working conditions for many Black women and girls, and encouraging women to “speak out” about assault, Rosa Parks was literally trying to break the silence.
Had Rosa Parks’ only contribution to society been her refusal to move to the back of the bus, she would still be one of the greatest heroes in American history. The fact that her advocacy was for women’s rights, as well as civil rights from the very beginning can help to remind us of something very important. We can’t be allies for any marginalized group, unless we are allies for all marginalized groups. Abuse is about power. Sexual assault is about power. Racism is about power. Homophobia and transphobia are about power.
Rosa Parks took back power. She refused to let that deputy sheriff scare her. She refused to quit after one grand jury failed to prosecute. She befriended the young girl who wasn’t viewed as being righteous enough to be the face of a civil rights cause. Mrs. Parks deserves so much credit for her fight for the rights of Black people in America. It also needs to be acknowledged that she fought for the rights of women and victims of abuse.
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