My favorite image of Rosa Parks, who died Monday at the age of 92, is of the confrontation between her and a policeman on that auspicious afternoon of Dec. 1, 1955, when she refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. After the officer had instructed her to "make it light on yourself" and give up her seat to a standing white man, she later said, she asked him, "Why do you push us around?" And he had given an honest answer: "I don't know." But then he explained that he had to arrest her anyway (even though she was not in technical violation of the city's segregation laws, but that's a whole other tangent of this rich saga). And so did history turn. In support of Parks' defiance, the black citizens of Montgomery boycotted the city buses until segregated seating was abolished, one whole year later. And so was born what is still known as the modern civil rights movement.
What's so great about that exchange between Parks and the policeman is the way they both seem to helicopter momentarily above the affray and acknowledge a truth of history: We all act upon, and are acted upon by, forces we don't understand. And then suddenly those forces crystallize in an event or person that "de-randomizes" all that has come before. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., who as a green young minister reluctantly agreed to head the Montgomery bus boycott, Rosa Parks "had been tracked down by the zeitgeist—the spirit of the time."
It took a while for the general public—and perhaps even Parks herself—to catch onto the historic logic of her action. For years, she was seen as a woman without a context, a poor-but-proud broken-down seamstress who had refused to move simply because she was "tired," clueless of the implications. In fact, her life (and she was only 42) encompassed the preceding two decades of black liberation. She had met her husband, Raymond Parks, in the early 1930s when he was raising money for the Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men falsely accused of raping two white women on a freight train, who had become an international cause célèbre thanks to the legal and propaganda efforts of the American Communist Party. (Virtually alone in that era, the Communist Party advocated full equality for African-Americans, and even the term "civil rights" was considered left-wing jargon.) With her high-school diploma—a credential that required resourcefulness and commitment for a black female of her time—Parks had served for years as the secretary in the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. She and her NAACP boss, E.D. Nixon, had already been discussing a way to protest that most demeaning daily feature of black life: the segregated bus ride to work and home under the watch of the city's famously abusive bus drivers. Nixon's day job was as a sleeping-car porter; his civil rights hero was A. Philip Randolph, the socialist intellectual who had turned the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters into the first significant black labor union.
Nixon bailed Parks out of jail that December evening. Along with him were two white aristocratic Alabama renegades, Clifford and Virginia Durr, who had been prominent New Dealers (Cliff was an early Federal Communications Commission member *) and were among the seamstress's private clients. Cliff, a skilled constitutional lawyer, became a behind-the-scenes adviser to Fred Gray, the inexperienced young black attorney who handled the class-action suit that pressed the legal brief against bus segregation at the same time the boycotters protested with their feet. In one of the ironies of the boycott story, Parks (Gray's constant lunch companion) was not in fact a named plaintiff in the constitutional test case she had inspired. And yet it was that case, on which the Supreme Court ruled in November 1956, that ended up desegregating the buses.
So why is Parks' obituary on the front page of the New York Times? Why did the Montgomery bus boycott turn out to be such a big deal when it was the courts that got the job done? Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's chief, doubted the boycott's significance himself when he said, "All that walking for nothing!"
In fact, the boycott represented a quantum shift in black emancipation. It was the passing of the torch from the mandarins of the NAACP, whose lawyers had tried to dismantle segregation statute by statute, to the ordinary bus riders, the "little people" now taking charge of their own destinies. By moving the struggle out of the courtroom and into the street, the droves of "walkers" (Virginia Durr likened them to a daily black tide) presented a vivid moral witness that piqued the country's imagination. And the boycott anointed Martin Luther King as the man of the very long ensuing hour, transforming the civil rights movement from a strategic offensive directed from New York to a spiritual uprising out of the black church. Rosa Parks not only launched this new paradigm but incorporated all those that preceded it: Old Leftism, New Deal liberalism, unionism, NAACP legalism and gradualism. She was an embodiment of the civil rights movement to that moment, even if the impression persists that she was a simple old lady with aching feet.
Despite what the eulogies might suggest, Parks did not ride off into the sunset on the front of that bus. The boycotters' organization, the Montgomery Improvement Association, split bitterly between Martin Luther King's faction, with its bourgeois gloss and razzle-dazzle access to the national media, and the earthier locals like E.D. Nixon, who complained that King treated him "as a child." Nixon would remain vocally bitter about being overlooked as the father of the boycott, regretting that he had tapped King to be the protest's leader ("and, with that bad guess," he would write, "we got Moses"). Nixon's ally, Rosa Parks, would quietly suffer her removal from the action, taking a job at Virginia's Hampton Institute (the Upper South version of Tuskegee Institute) within months of the boycott's end, since her notoriety prevented her from finding work in Montgomery. Birmingham's firebrand civil rights leader, Fred Shuttlesworth, chewed out the MIA leadership for not recognizing her symbolic importance to the struggle and finding a way to support her.
And so Parks would spend most of her life far away from the city she put on the map. She ended up in Detroit, resuming her sewing before Rep. John Conyers put her on his staff in 1965. But she showed her pioneering stuff in the foundation she began, the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, to help ordinary black kids achieve the blessings of society. She recognized that it was not the exceptional children who most needed grant money and attention but the contemporary version of the striving, struggling bus riders. In her final years, Parks suffered from dementia, which may explain her misguided and unsuccessful lawsuit against OutKast for appropriating her name as the title of a song. I can't help but feel that Parks was fortunate to fade when she did, in the wake of Katrina's images of black poverty and hopelessness. In just a few weeks, the 50th anniversary commemorations of her heroism will make us reckon with how far we still are from the goals her civil rights movement had seemed to put within grasp.