It has been 60 years since activist Rosa Parks was arrested on Dec. 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Ala. She resisted bus segregation by refusing to give up her seat to a white man when the whites-only section was full. Parks was determined to help propel the civil rights movement through the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott.
However, she was not the first Black woman activist who was arrested for a bus protest.
“Even before Rosa Parks’ protest, there was an earlier incident involving a young, Black girl named Claudette Colvin,” Dr. Adolphus Belk Jr. told DiversityInc. “She was about 15-years-old. She refused to give up her seat.”
Belk is a professor of political science and the director of the African American Studies Program at Winthrop University in South Carolina. He is an expert on issues of race and politics, most recently appearing on MSNBC to discuss the leverage of Black women voters in presidential elections.
Belk explained that on March 2, 1952, Colvin was arrested for defying bus segregation in Montgomery. But when senior leaders of the NAACP discovered she was pregnant out of wedlock they decided, given the social norms of the time, not to use her to represent the boycott.
He said the leaders then looked to Parks to repeat Colvin’s act of defiance nine months later. At age 42, “she was also someone who was not just a seasoned activist, but a more mature person,” Belk said.
Common folklore portrays Parks as a passive, quiet seamstress who accidentally became involved in the civil rights movement when she was so exhausted she refused to give up her seat. But Belk told DiversityInc that’s not the case.
“She didn’t just fail to move because she was too tired to comply,” he said. “She wasn’t this sort of delicate, passive person in it all. She had a great deal of agency. She had a lot of fire. She was someone who had a strong mind, who had a long commitment to civil justice and civil rights. And who had already been a leader in the NAACP in Montgomery.”
Belk named Colvin, Parks and Jo Ann Robinson, a university professor who circulated news of the bus protests, as influential in organizing and promoting the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He also noted the “nameless, faceless Black women, many of whom worked as domestics, who would go from the Black side of town to the white side of town for their jobs, who supported the boycott and made it successful.”
Belk said the boycott went on for 381 days before they received a favorable ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that declared the Alabama and Montgomery laws requiring segregated buses unconstitutional.
“They were in this for the long haul, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the Black women who provided leadership and support for the boycott,” Belk said.
Modern-day Black Women Activists
Alicia Garza, a co-founder of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, wrote an essay in 2014 describing how a hashtag became a movement:
I created #BlackLivesMatter with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, two of my sisters, as a call to action for Black people after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was posthumously placed on trial for his own murder and the killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for the crime he committed. It was a response to the anti-Black racism that permeates our society and also, unfortunately, our movements … Opal, Patrisse, and I created the infrastructure for this movement project — moving the hashtag from social media to the streets.
Belk described a parallel between the actions of Black women activists of the civil rights movement and modern-day BLM leaders.
“The greatest parallel that I see is that [the BLM creators] came together and helped to bring attention to the issue that’s been going on across the states, across jurisdictions, for quite some time now,” he said. “These women are working to draw attention to important issues that afflict the nation. Women are still rendered invisible because most people don’t know that women created that hashtag and are providing leadership in the Black Lives Matter Movement across the states.”
Belk made the point that criticisms of the BLM movement as inciting or calling for violence against police are designed to delegitimize the movement and “sort of harken back to the things that people said during the mid-to-late 1960s about the civil rights movement itself.”
“They were the ones who were ‘inciting lawlessness.’ They were the ones who were ‘inciting violence,’ and they were ‘some of the most violent people who were in the society.’ So in some ways we’re watching the same film.”