Reintroducing Rosa: Mrs. Parks fight to prevent rape of Black women

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(NNPA)—Traditionally Black History is presented with accounts of luminaries such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, Gabriel Prosser, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. In nearly every instance the narrative is narrowly offered, and skewed to heroics of Black men.

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Mrs. Rosa Parks is no exception. To read most history textbooks students have been fed fiction as to who Mrs. Parks was and how she came to be the Mother of the Modern Civil Rights Movement. I vividly remember learning the limited lesson that Mrs. Parks was a “poor seamstress who was simply too tired to move to the back of the bus”, as racially segregated laws required in most American cities, from 1896 (Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case) to 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education court case). In reality, Mrs. Parks was no “shrinking violet” in response to racial segregation.

First, Rosa Parks sought to attend, and completed college at the Philander School, which was a training ground for activists who wanted to challenge “Jim Crow” laws. Secondly, after finishing her studies, Mrs. Parks returned to her home of Montgomery, Ala. and immediately challenged the racist voting laws of Alabama by applying for the right to vote. In 1943 and 1944, Rosa Parks was told she failed the voting examination. In 1945, Mrs. Parks not only memorized the questions, but the answers to the exam repeated them to voting officials. As a result, she passed and was granted her right to vote in Alabama—20-years before African-Americans could vote via the 1965 Voting Rights Act; and 10 years prior to the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Moreover, Mrs. Parks intentionally chose to be a part of history. Rosa Parks was elected to serve as the Secretary of the Montgomery Chapter of the NAACP. As such, she regularly met with Attorney Fred Gray (lawyer to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) to strategize on challenging racist laws. In fact, James Blake, the bus driver on whose bus Mrs. Parks refused to move was well known within the Black community of Montgomery as a virulent racist, who regularly verbally insulted African-Americans, particularly Black women. Rosa Parks deliberately chose the exact bus and the date (Dec. 1, 1955) to enter the annals of world history.

However, one major role Mrs. Parks played in history has not been sufficiently revealed until recently in the form of the book, “The Dark End of the Street, “(2010) by Danielle McGuire. Due, in part, to male dominated Civil Rights historians the role of Black women has usually been relegated to secondary status. In her book, Ms. McGuire exposes wide-spread cases of rape by White men of Black women, few of which went to trial, and despicably even less resulted in conviction. All-White juries from 1896 to well into the 1960s simply refused to honor justice and convict Whites of crimes against Blacks (Let me not mention the “legal” rape of Black women by White “Founding Fathers” such as Washington, Jefferson and Franklin).

In one particular case in 1944 a young, married African-American woman named Mrs. Recy Taylor was walking home from church with family members on a dark road when a car full of White men slowly passed and returned. At gunpoint, Mrs. Taylor was taken and gang raped by six of the seven men. Like countless Black women raped by White men prior to the 1960’s Mrs. Taylor was let go by her captors and threatened by death if she told. Unlike most, she immediately and courageously told her family and the NAACP.

Mrs. Parks was assigned by the NAACP to investigate the rape case and organized a portion of the Black community to call for the rapists to stand trial. She won the battle of bringing the men to court twice, but all-White juries never convicted the rapists. Nonetheless, Mrs. Parks’ organizing skills and activism led to a network of community organizers upon which the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott was successful. Who knew?

Actually, many historians knew of Mrs. Parks’ work on the Recy Taylor case but declined to write about such due to the violence of rape, and the need to first dismantle racial segregation via federal legislation such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act; the 1965 Voting Rights Act; and the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

America cannot move “beyond race” until our nation moves into a frank discussion of the lasting effects of the false notion of White Supremacy.

(Gary L. Flowers is the executive director & CEO of the Black Leadership Forum, Inc.)

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