Why Did She Do It? Rosa Parks, 1955
ANNETTE TELLS TALES: Stories from the Past That Resonate with Now, Retold
The day Montgomery’s buses were integrated, 1956. Rosa Parks with a reporter in an otherwise almost empty bus. A bit staged and awkward. Photo: Library of Congress
Dr. Annette Laing’s Non-Boring History, a real historian bringing a magical mix of history, journalism, and creativity grounded firmly in facts, for busy adults. What are you waiting for?
Rosa Parks, December 1, 1955
A segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. A simple elderly seamstress, a working-class black woman, refuses to give up her seat to a white man. She is tired.
Is this how you recall it, the story of Rosa Parks? This is how most people do.
Now you might be saying, “Laing, I thought Non-Boring History was about introducing us to new stuff, not just repeating what we learned in high school?” Or maybe you are saying smugly, “Actually, I do know the real story.” To the first group, I say: Yes it is, and to the second, I say, No, you don’t. The people who knew the most are dead. But don’t go anywhere. Give me a chance to show you. This familiar story is about to take an unfamiliar turn.
1985: Will The Real Rosa Parks Please Stand Up?
BEEP. The film crew is from Blackside, a black-owned film production company with a young multiracial staff. The director is sitting awkwardly on one of Rosa Parks’s chairs. It’s been thirty years, and she has never been interviewed for TV before. This is always a strange experience: You get interrupted, asked to repeat and rephrase, and then, when you get it perfect, they forgot to turn on the audio. Mrs. Parks is soft-spoken, hesitant, tetchy at times. The film editor will have his work cut out for him.
And then . . . .
Rosa Parks: I had been active much farther back than 1954, I had been working with NAACP since 1943. And I worked with uh, the uh, we set up registrations, __ meetings for people to start becoming registered voters. Very few of us were registered in the early 1940's. And, it was practically impossible to for a black person regardless of the intelligence to become registered except for a very few selected by the white community.
Wait . . . What’s this about the early 1940s? Rosa Parks was active in the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and as early as 1943? I thought she was a simple seamstress. And how old was she exactly, in 1955? She was 42. Which is only elderly to teenagers.
INTERVIEWER: WAIT, HOLD ON. OKAY, NOW YOU GET A CHANCE TO TELL ME HOW MR. NIXON, HOW YOU WORKED WITH MR. NIXON BEFORE THE BOYCOTT CAME ABOUT.
And who is this Mr. Nixon?? Not Richard, apparently . . . Another Mr. Nixon. Let’s hear Mrs. Parks explain:
Rosa Parks: Mr. E. D. Nixon was the very first person who told me the importance of registering and uh, becoming a voter. We uh, he and quite a few of the community people, my husband included, organized a Voters League we called it, we met in each other's homes and uh, a __ Madison, Mayor of Montgomery . . .
[Wait, what? Sorry to interrupt Rosa Parks, but the transcript has this last bit wrong. I think Mrs. Parks says “Attorney Madison Nabrit of Montgomery,” civil rights attorney James Madison Nabrit Jr. Anyhow, some dude . . . ]
had come down from New York City to help us with our registration. His aim was to get people, get us registered without having to be approved by some white registered voter. We worked with that as well as with the NAACP. And Mr. Nixon at that time was the President, and when he wasn't President, he was the Chairman of the Legal Redress Committee and whenever any incident or anything happened in the community, we always called on him. So, he was the very first person who was notified by a friend of mine that I was in jail.
Let's be clear: This story doesn’t begin on December 1, 1955. Mrs. Parks:
The call that I was permitted to make was to my home and I spoke with my mother and my husband and told them I was in jail. And my husband did find someone to give him a ride to jail to release me.
Rosa Parks had a husband? Who knew, unless they watched that Doctor Who episode we will be talking about some other time? Honestly, I think a lot of people hear “seamstress” and think “spinster.” Sorry. Carry on, Mrs. Parks!
But in the meantime, Mr. Nixon, [A]ttorney and Mrs. uh, Clifford Durr, were there and they made bonds for me before my husband arrived.
There was nothing spontaneous about what happened that day.
Mrs. Parks was allowed only one call from jail, and it was to her family. Meanwhile, E.D. Nixon, the head of the Montgomery NAACP, had swung into action. He arrived at the jail with a white lawyer, a native of Alabama named Clifford Durr. That’s surprising enough. But why did Cliff Durr’s wife come along for the ride?
Hold that thought. Now, come with me, because we’re flying to Boston in 1979.
The Marvelous Ms. Richardson and the Not-Yet- Marvelous Mr. Hampton: Boston, 1979
Henry Hampton with Blackside colleagues. Photo: Washington University in St. Louis, Henry Hampton Collection.
1979: Henry Hampton is disorganized, dedicated and (did I mention?) all over the place. Know him? His disability, the result of polio, is probably the last thing you think of when you think of him. He lives and works out of a huge, ramshackle ten-bedroom mansion built in 1834 in what is now a poor and violent Boston neighborhood, raising funds with the rental fees from the 24 (yes, 24) garages on the property (from which a chop shop once needed to be evicted, possibly at gunpoint). This man draws a steady stream of talented, skilled, and devoted people to orbit around him. And once Henry Hampton gets into your head, you are his.
Don’t worry, he isn’t operating a brainwashing cult. He is creator and owner of Blackside, a documentary production company, and he is executive producing a documentary about the civil rights movement. Or he wants to. Like everyone else at Blackside, he has never actually made a documentary. As he scrambles for experience, money, credibility, and connections, he knows the clock is ticking. All around him, the people who could tell the story of the civil rights movement first-hand are dying as he tries to get the show on the road.
He has made great hires, and Judy Richardson is the best of the best. She’s researching, in an age before the internet, cell phones, even faxes. When research, to quote Blackside producer Jon Else, means
Library card catalogs, paper archives, newspaper morgues, letters, postcards, phone calls, and face-to-face talking.
As a young woman, Judy Richardson was herself part of the civil rights movement, a member of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). She has credibility, contacts, and a winning personality. Watch the video at the end of the post, and you’ll see why I want to be Judy Richardson’s friend. You will, too.
Henry Hampton wants to find the local leaders, the people overshadowed by Dr. King and the national figures, and especially women. Judy Richardson makes phone calls coast to coast, and, in Los Angeles, she finally tracks down Jo Ann Robinson, whom Jon Else describes as
the most important woman organizer of the Montgomery bus boycott, [and she] was an unknown . . .
Judy interviews her. Ms. Robinson tells a vivid story. By 1992, she will be gone. But thanks to Judy Richardson and Henry Hampton, she lives on.
America, We Loved You Madly
The interview with Jo Ann Robinson was made for the first documentary that Henry and his team produced about the civil rights movement, a two-hour job with the awful title of America, We Loved You Madly. They had shot some great footage. But then he flaked on writing the treatment (the description you give to the higher-ups at TV and film companies you hope will take on your project), and when he admitted this to the Blackside crew, with tears in his eyes, some walked out in disgust.
That same day, Henry huddled with Steve Fayer. Steve was his chief writer, a working-class Jewish New Yorker who once said “Henry had confidence in me when I had no confidence in myself”. They pulled an all-nighter at the typewriters, and they got the treatment done. The final documentary did not impress anyone: It strayed from Henry’s vision of civil rights movement participants speaking for themselves, and became more like other documentaries of the time, telling the story through the narrator.
Give Henry Hampton and Blackside credit, though: America, We Loved You Madly was the first attempt to do a documentary on the civil rights movement that wasn’t just all about Dr. King, as if talking about one black person meant you talked about them all. Henry and Judy knew better. Even before you start talking to the foot soldiers, who have their own stories, there is never just one leader. That's really not how it works.
Blackside was never a non-profit. It was a for-profit, and it trundled along making corporate training videos and the like. Henry Hampton said breezily,
I’ve never worried about being able to make a living. That’s part of the middle-class confidence that your parents gave you.
(Oh, and an aside: I can’t help noticing in Wisconsin in 2021 how many white people, yes, liberals, think all Black people are poor, and how incredibly racist they end up sounding, because they don’t consider class. I think about class. So did Henry Hampton.)
Often, Blackside runs on fumes and Henry’s confidence. The bills pile up. But Henry Hampton won’t let go. And he’s getting better. And collecting more and more people around him who are the right people, and telling them so. That’s leadership.
Henry had loved the title America, We Loved You Madly. Everyone else hated it. Judy Richardson, back in 1979, had sent round a memo listing alternate titles from freedom songs, like We Shall Overcome, and This Little Light of Mine . . . . and Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.
Now, six years later, over dinner in Legal Seafoods in Boston, Steve Fayer and others try to persuade Henry to dump the title he wants for the new series. He half-heartedly jots down alternative titles on a napkin. But in the end, he is adamant.
And that’s how the finest documentary series ever made, a series that’s now being broadcast again for the first time since the 1980s, became known as Eyes on the Prize.
Henry believed that you shouldn’t hide all the planning and organizing in the background. And I agree. So Judy Richardson suggested the title. And Henry Hampton picked it. Eventually.
Wait, what happened to the story of Rosa Parks?
This is the story of Rosa Parks.
Henry Hampton and Blackside and Rosa Parks and so many others made it.
Jo Ann Robinson and the Mimeo Machine, December 2, 1955
Jo Ann Robinson, Arrest Photo. Photo: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37021719
It’s four o’clock in the morning, and Jo Ann Robinson can hardly see straight. Ever since she got the news from Mr. Nixon about Mrs. Parks, she’s been churning the mimeograph machine at Alabama State University. She has been waiting for this moment. for a long time. The Women’s Political Council of Montgomery, Alabama (Jo Ann Robinson, President) has been planning a bus boycott for years. This is the time.
Thirty-five thousand flyers are stacked and tied, announcing the boycott. Now, Ms. Robinson sits down and plans how the flyers will be distributed. She makes calls to her organized phone tree: She calls people, they call people, and those people call people. It’s what you did before the internet.
By 8 a.m., she is standing in front of her first class of the day. Jo Ann Robinson teaches English in a segregated college. The bureaucrats who run the place would be horrified to know of her use of the mimeo machine, because that's the kind of people they are. You don’t ask permission from people like that. Robinson has no qualms: she is president of the Women’s Political Council, an organization of middle-class Black women in Montgomery dedicated to political action against segregation. Jo Ann Robinson knows what really matters, and it’s not nicking a few reams of paper and some ink. Remembering the sight of empty buses on a cold and cloudy day, she later said, “I think that people had reached the point that they knew there was no return, that they had to do it or die. It was the sheer spirit for freedom, for the feeling of being a man and a woman.”
E.D. (Edgar Daniel) Nixon, Organizer, December 1, 1955
E.D. Nixon is former president of the Montgomery NAACP, and still running the show, in or out of the top office. A brilliant man with a grand total of 16 months of schooling, thanks to the deliberate system that denies any sort of education to most black people. On the railroad, he worked his way up to being Sleeping Car Porter, one of the most prestigious jobs available to Black men. Then he became a union organizer. Like many middle-class Black men of his generation, he goes by his initials, E.D., so that white people won’t know his first name, and address him by it, at a time when white people are always called Mr. or Mrs. The bus system is just one of the many, many humiliations that segregation piles onto black people, and crushes them. It, they, didn’t crush E.D. Nixon.
Now, when Mr. Nixon confirms Mrs. Parks’s arrest, he contacts Clifford and Virginia Durr, and they accompany him to the jail. Bringing along a posh white couple of native Alabamians will speed things up, and of course, Clifford is a civil rights lawyer. This was planned. Mr. Nixon contacts Jo Ann Robinson and the Women’s Political Council. This was planned. He contacts a local minister, a young man who relocated from Atlanta to his first ever pulpit in the past year, and who hasn’t yet been convinced by other, done down clergymen to go along to get along. Mr. Nixon asks him to allow an organizing meeting in his church. Martin Luther King, Jr. says yes, of course. Because that’s what you say to the unofficial Mayor of Black Montgomery.
Clifford and Virginia Durr, 1955
Clifford and Virginia Durr. Photo: Encyclopedia of Alabama
White people? I’m bringing posh white Southern people into this story? Yes, I am. Listen to me, do. I’m a novelist who once forced my unsuspecting white readers to empathize with Black characters (in One Way or Another), by giving them no choice.
And keep listening: The Durrs aren’t white saviors, or distant “allies”, and they are not just on the sidelines. The Durrs need their own post at Non-Boring History sometime. Let’s just say for now that they are not typical native white Alabamians, not even typical white Southern liberals. Virginia was raised a racist, like every white person in Alabama, but unlearned that as a student at Wellesley, the liberal arts college in Massachusetts. When they married, Clifford expected her to be a posh housewife. Nope. While Cliff worked for the FDR administration in DC, Virginia was hanging out with Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune, leader of the President's Black Cabinet of advisers.
By 1955, the Durrs are back in Alabama. Clifford is a civil rights lawyer, and Virginia is a civil rights activist, convinced that life under segregation is just plain wrong. They’re under FBI surveillance. They aren’t Communists: In fact, Clifford once punched a man at a Senate hearing who accused Virginia of being a Communist. They are simply educated and decent people. They are principled. Courageous. Moral. And part of our story.
Oh, and yes, Virginia Durr and Rosa Parks become lifelong friends. Real friends. Having a laugh on the sofa together friends. Like this.
Virginia Durr and Rosa Parks. Friends. Really. Photo: UnionSpringsHerald.com
Claudette Colvin, March 2, 1955
Rewind to March 2, 1955. Nine months before Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat. Claudette Colvin is 15, in high school, and feeling inspired by learning about Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman in Negro History Week at her segregated school. Riding the Montgomery city bus home today, she refuses to give up her seat to white people. She is arrested and jailed. She is dark-skinned, a teenager, and working-class. Clifford Durr prepares to appeal her conviction as a test case, but she does not fit the profile E.D. Nixon wants as a test case, and especially not after she gets pregnant.
But what Claudette does, is she starts something. Bus company officials agree to meet with community representatives to talk about maybe devising a less demeaning system of bus segregation. For the community appear Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jo Ann Robinson of the Women’s Political Council, and, representing the NAACP . . . Mrs. Rosa Parks.
Rosa Parks, Activist
Septima Clark and Rosa Parks, Highlander Folk School, August, 1955 Photo: Library of Congress (023.00.00)
Rosa Louise McCauley Parks and Raymond Parks, her husband (the one you now know she had) are both active in the NAACP in 1955, and they have been for years. Rosa is the Youth Council adviser. She is, more importantly, NAACP branch secretary, working for E.D. Nixon (who thinks women should stay home, but makes an exception because Mrs. Parks is highly competent.)
Rosa Parks has a day job, and she also works for Virginia Durr, making dresses for her four daughters. They are becoming friends (real friends, not “friends” in the sense that white Southerners normally mean when talking about Black Southerners at this time, which is not friends at all). In August, 1955, Virginia pays for Rosa to go to Highlander Folk School, for an interracial training camp for civil rights leaders in the Tennessee mountains. It’s run by black activist and teacher Septima Clark, who mentors young Mrs. Parks.
Four months later, Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on the bus. Unlike fifteen year old Claudette Colvin, she is a respectable, married, middle-class woman, and an NAACP officer. Perfect for a test case of bus segregation in the courts, according to E.D. Nixon. He later said: “When Rosa Parks was arrested, I thought ‘this is it!’ ’Cause she’s morally clean, she’s reliable, nobody had nothing on her, she had the courage of her convictions.” Somehow, I doubt Mr. Nixon was surprised by Mrs. Parks's arrest. At all.
Claudette Colvin also had the courage of her convictions, I often think. But this is how things were in 1955: Class mattered in the black community as it did in every American community. Are things different now? You tell me.
Why Did She Do It? December 1, 1955
Let’s return to Rosa Parks. Who planned it, thought about it, worked for it, had plenty of time to contemplate the dangers. Why did she do it?
A problem that Eyes on the Prize producer Jon Else brought to my attention in his book: There was only so much time in the series to explain.
But let Rosa Parks tell us, in the first interview she gave, to Blackside, thirty years after the fact:
And, and, the time I was on the bus and refused to stand up, it was principally because I felt my rights as a human being were being violated and that getting [up] and obeying the officers was not helping to make conditions better for me or any of the rest of us. And, it was only way I knew to let him and the, all world know that I wanted to be a respectable and respected citizen in the community.
FILM PRODUCTION TEAM: Camera Roll 560
FILM PRODUCTION TEAM: Sound Roll 1256
FILM PRODUCTION TEAM: ROOM TONE AT THE BEGINNING.
That’s why she did it. It’s just like Jo Ann Robinson also said. To be like everyone else. That was and is the goal. That was and is the prize: To be respected as a citizen, as a human being. And that should be easy for any of us to understand. The segregated South depended on everyone not understanding it. On forcing people to not be themselves. To be defined by their “racial” identity. To pretend that they didn't see what they saw. And that included white people. And it still does in the supposedly desegregated South.
And Now, The Grand Finale
The bus boycott, thirteen months of thousands of people walking the streets of Montgomery, ended in victory. We sometimes forget that, especially when we think of the prices people ultimately paid: Rosa and Raymond Parks lost their jobs, and were blacklisted by employers. They left Alabama, but remained activists. Jo Ann Robinson was investigated by officials at Alabama State for her involvement in the boycott, resigned, and moved to California, where she taught English in Los Angeles schools until retirement, still active in women’s groups. E.D. Nixon had his home bombed by white terrorists. He also became embittered that he got so little credit for the Montgomery boycott, but he remained a grassroots community activist. And of course, we know what eventually happened to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
But while the bus boycott was only a beginning of a story with many beginnings and not enough happy endings for individuals, it’s always important to celebrate the joy of victory when you have it in hand. It’s time to give the people of the Montgomery Bus Boycott a delayed celebration.
Imagine a huge theatre. The stage is crowded for the curtain call.
Rosa Parks takes her well-deserved bow in the spotlight, front and center. Supporting her? Her mother and her husband Raymond, both of them looking so proud. Now, she does something unexpected: She takes Claudette Colvin’s hand, and they bow together. Hey, this is my imagination I am leading you through, and that’s what I want to happen.
Look to the right. There’s Martin Luther King, Jr., of course, and Coretta Scott King by his side.
Now look to more of the supporting players on both sides of the stage. Some, we haven’t had time to meet: people like Rufus Lewis, funeral director. He's here, representing the hearse drivers, the cab drivers, all the volunteer drivers he organized to take the boycotters to work or wherever they needed to go. And there’s Georgia Gilmore, a maid who walked miles each day for months as a boycott participant, like so many others.
But now we do recognize some people we would not have known before. See the heavyset man in a sharp suit with an air of authority? That’s E.D. Nixon.
An aristocratic-looking white Southern couple are on the left, clapping Mrs. Parks: Clifford and Virginia Durr.
Here’s Jo Ann Robinson representing the unsung women activists of Montgomery who picked up phones, who ran off thousands of flyers, who rallied thousands of women, each of them risking their jobs and lives, but without whom, there would have been no boycott.
And now here they come: The men, hearse drivers, cab drivers, all the volunteer drivers. The women who rang the phones, and handed out the flyers. Now everyone who refused to ride the buses. They’re crowding onto the stage from the wings. They’re proudly walking down the aisles, heads held high. They’re filling the balconies, some waving and smiling, some looking dignified and somber, some in tears.
And the houselights come up, and now we see them all, all of them.
And we see them all because of a crazy wannabe film maker, a brilliant, eccentric and privileged man, a guy from a wealthy family, a polio survivor, a man who drove everyone nuts, but they never forgot him. And they never will, thanks to the work of Judy Richardson, and Jon Else, and all the crew of Blackside. Here's Henry Hampton, in the audience, and the people on stage hold out hands of recognition to him, so he’s taking a bow, holding hands with Judy Richardson and Jon Else, whose book is reviving his memory, and he’s surrounded by all the young people, black and white, who answered his call, and they're standing, applauding as others applaud them. Now, it’s our turn, the audience.
For the first time, we make our presence known.
We stand to applaud them all, all of them who kept their Eyes on the Prize.
But No Finale Is Ever Final
I think it’s long past time we saw the whole cast in history, because historians have been writing about them for years. Not just in Montgomery in 1955, but at Selma ten years later, and in every historical event where courage and cooperation are required. History should not belong to those who are assigned sole credit (even Dr. King, who never meant for that to happen) or who take it for themselves to the exclusion of others (people who shall remain nameless for now, but think about it).
And it is long past time that we recognize that what makes heroes heroic is often that they are so very human, and ordinary. That true leaders are humble. That they lead by example. And that there are many, many, more of them than it’s convenient to remember their names. But real leaders don't do what they do for the personal credit, which they often assign to others. We have to make sure they get it too.
Dr. Annette Laing, the Non-Boring Historian, is a former professor of history and member of the Africana Studies program at Georgia Southern University. With a background in early American and modern British history, she writes on a variety of subjects at Non-Boring History for busy adults with zero time who aren’t even sure they like history, but need something more out of life than doomscrolling. Subscribe for FREE and get access to most posts. For the full experience, and/or to support Annette’s outreach, a paid subscription is as little as $5 a month or $60 a year. Either way, do sign up, and have Annette on tap to introduce you to stories that relate, most of them translated from academic history and original documents. And do tell a friend!
Want to Know More?
Eyes on the Prize
Eyes on the Prize is an astonishing documentary series. Judy Richardson, who tracked down Jo Ann Robinson for the documentary and interviewed her, talks to historian Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries below, in 2021. This is a long video, BUT I have cued it for you at one of the many interesting parts, and I ask that you put in your headphones, and give the fabulous Ms. Richardson just five minutes. You may find yourself wanting to watch the whole thing. But please, five minutes. Judy Richardson talks about an earlier documentary, not produced by Blackside, and how it differed from Eyes on the Prize. She talks about the big cast of people involved in the movement as leaders as well as foot soldiers, the role of historians and other scholars in making Eyes on the Prize, and Henry Hampton’s approach. She is brilliant. Don’t miss this.
Eyes on the Prize: The series.
You will probably have to pay to actually watch Eyes on the Prize in 2021. This series is a national treasure. Start here if you want to support PBS rather than the billionaires. Ask your local librarian. Stage a showing of episode 1 for your family, friends, community, students. Let’s get it out there. I used whole episodes, and clips, for years in my classes. One day, afterward, a student wandered up, and said, “My grandfather was in the civil rights movement.” When I found out his name, I almost fell over: C.T. Vivian. I’ll give him his own post, too. Bear with me.
See ALL the raw footage of Eyes on the Prize’s interviews. Do scroll through the long small-text introduction thanking everybody. The good stuff is on the bottom half of the page. (Historians? Please don’t do this. Ask journalists for help. OK?) The raw footage of Blackside’s interview with Rosa Parks for Eyes on the Prize is online there. And so is the transcript.
Claudette Colvin short video by The Big Story. Do watch. It’s short.
Jon Else, True South: Henry Hampton and Eyes on the Prize, the Landmark Television Series That Reframed the Civil Rights Movement. Recommended to you. Don’t be scared by that long subtitle!! This is NOT an academic book. Jon Else was series producer and cinematographer for Eyes on the Prize, and what I have written about the series, Henry Hampton, and Judy Richardson started with his book. Jon is originally from Sacramento, which means he’s good with me. Great book, too, on Blackside’s struggle to get this amazing series made. I do not get kickbacks from your book purchases, and unless noted, I have bought or borrowed the book.
Academic Historian? If I have something outright wrong, tell me. And tell me about your work, because I’m always excited to learn of academic history I can translate for a very general public.