Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,611

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,611

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This is the grave of Rosa Parks, or more accurately the building where her grave resides, because it was locked when I was there.

Born in 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama, Rosa McCauley mostly grew up in rural Alabama, raised by grandparents after her parents divorced. Of course, this was the height of Jim Crow and it seared its impact into the young girl, as she had to travel for terrible schools and whites could go to reasonably fine schools in their neighborhoods. She chafed against this injustice her whole life. She married a barber and NAACP activist named Raymond Parks in 1932 and got her high school diploma in 1933 at her husband’s urging. She became the local NAACP secretary in 1943 and remained in that job until 1957. That was the only job for women in the organization and it’s worth noting that almost the entire civil rights movement was extraordinarily sexist, very much including Martin Luther King. She also attended meetings of the Communist Party, though she never joined it. Parks became furious over the acquittals of the racist who murdered Emmett Till and that started moving her toward the direct action that would change the world in 1955.

Our teaching of the civil rights movement is all messed up. We’ve created a narrative that downplays the real challenges and goals of the movement in order to create nice narratives that make America look good–Parks isn’t moving to the back of the bus anymore, so everyone wins! Well, that’s true to a point. But the point is much smaller than you think. The teaching of Parks is a big part of this. There are three things about how we talk about Rosa Parks that are fundamentally wrong.

First, she wasn’t the woman who said “my feets are tired” during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Her feet were very much not tired. That woman was an older lady in Montgomery during the boycott itself. This may seem like a minor point and perhaps it is, but it also serves to show how we want to turn civil rights legends into these innocent heroes that were just tired and had reasonable demands and also to merge multiple narratives into a single person.

Second, Rosa Parks was a trained activist. She knew what she was doing. She had trained at the Highlander Center in Montegale, Tennessee, shortly before this action. Since 1932, Highlander, led by the great Myles Horton, had taken the lead on training both labor and civil rights activists in enforced integrated sessions that intended to bring social justice to the South. Parks was a long-time NAACP activist in Montgomery as well. No, she did not plan to do this action on that given day, but she did understand what she was doing when she did it and what could happen.

Third, Rosa Parks was a purveyor of a respectability politics that didn’t necessarily age that well. She was hardly the first woman to refuse to move to the back of the bus, not even in Montgomery. Earlier in 1955, a young woman named Claudette Colbert did the same thing. But the NAACP refused to move on this. Colbert was young, an unmarried mother, and was a working-class girl known for a hot temper and tendency to swear a lot. This was not the kind of church-going lady that would provide the veneer of respectability that the organization wanted here. I don’t necessarily blame her or anyone else for this; after all, it’s pretty easy for me to sit here in 2024 and judge what people facing real oppression chose in 1955. And that is silly. But Parks most definitely had her own personal respectability politics that she held through her life.

For example, Parks hated hip-hop as unrespectable gangster music/ So when Outkast had a huge hit with “Rosa Parks” off their 1998 album Aquemini, she sued them, saying they had used her name without permission. This was a pretty bad moment. That huckster charlatan Johnnie Cochran ended up getting involved to help Parks in this pretty meritless case. The record label threw her some money and the band agreed to be involved in some educational programs about Parks’ life. It is however possible in all of this that Parks, who was starting to suffer from dementia from this time, was used by lawyers to make money without her really being aware of what was going on.

But whatever. She was who she was. She suffered real consequences due to her bravery as well, mostly economic. She was fired from her job and so was her husband. So they left Montgomery. They first moved to Hampton, Virginia in 1957 to find work and then went to Detroit shortly after. Parks was involved in politics for the rest of her life, but mostly in smaller things than Montgomery. That included the struggle for fair housing in Detroit and publicized the discrimination she saw in that city. She came back to Alabama to provide support on various campaigns, including the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. She was close to John Conyers and helped him out on his first Congressional campaign. Her name alone would get him a lot of votes. Conyers then hired her to work in his office and she did that until her retirement in 1988. She did a lot of the daily constituent work for him, showing around the city, dedicating stuff, that kind of thing. In some ways, Conyers hired her to simply be Rosa Parks and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Also, Parks was not nearly the hero of nonviolence that you think. She loved Malcolm X and they became personal friends. She spoke at the funeral of Robert Williams, the NAACP activist in North Carolina who advocated armed self-defense for Black communities and had to flee to Cuba and China in order to escape the law for those actions. She outright supported these ideas. She worked with radical Black Power organizations in the late 60s in Detroit, such as the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Republic of New Afrika on issues of police violence during the 1967 riots, which she blamed on the city’s housing discrimination. She visited the Black Panther schools in Oakland and openly supported the Black Power movement in Detroit. She introduced Angela Davis after her release from prison after the George Jackson case, calling her a “dear sister who has suffered so much persecution.”

In short, Parks was a really complicated woman who fits no pat narrative of the civil rights movement. And she’s so much more interesting for this! Maybe we should teach about who she really was!!!!!

Parks’ later years were rough. Her health declined even by the 70s and she lost much of her family, including her husband, at a young age. She was robbed in a 1994 home invasion that of course caused her enormous anxiety and distress for the rest of her life. By 2002, she was about to be evicted from her apartment for not paying her rent because she simply did not have the mental capacity to run her own affairs anymore. Luckily, the Hartford Memorial Baptist Church stepped up, collected money, paid her back rent, and then made sure she could live rent-free for the rest of her life.

Parks died in 2005. She was 92 years old.

Rosa Parks is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Detroit, Michigan. And in case you are wondering why I didn’t time this to visit when I could get inside the chapel, this whole recent Detroit visit took place only because I got stranded there overnight due to a late flight and so I did what one does–rented a car and went to see graves for this series. That’s the kind of thing your donations pay for here. This whole upcoming series of Detroit graves are based on this.

If you would like this series to visit other leading women of the civil rights movement, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Ella Baker is in Queens, New York and Dorothy Cotton is in Ithaca, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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