February is Black History Month, and today marks the 108th anniversary of the birth of Rosa Parks. Famously, on December 1, 1955, Parks became the catalyst of the Montgomery Bus Boycott after refusing to move to the “colored” section in the back of a public bus. What is less well known, however, is that Parks was already involved in civil rights and antiracist activism when she committed her act of civil disobedience.
In 1932, Rosa married Raymond Parks, an active NAACP member. Seeing the difficulty of her husband’s work started to radicalize Rosa to the fight for racial justice. In 1943, Rosa Parks officially joined the NAACP and started working as secretary for the president of the Montgomery chapter, Edgar Nixon. That same year, defying Jim Crow and all of its attending laws meant to keep her from doing so, Rosa began attempting to register to vote. On one of her first attempts to register, Rosa had a run-in with the notoriously racist bus driver James F. Blake, who kicked her off the bus for entering through the front “Whites” stairwell as opposed to the back. One must wonder if Blake’s treatment made Rosa even more committed to racial justice. Her voter registration was finally approved two years later, in 1945.
Over the next decade, Rosa and her husband Raymond would continue to work in the civil rights movement. Rosa began leading the NAACP Youth Council, and reformed it in 1954 to take greater stands against segregation. During this time, Virginia and Clifford Durr, a White liberal couple for whom she worked as a seamstress, encouraged Rosa to attend courses at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Clifford was on the Highlander board of directors, and thus helped Rosa fund her travel and stay at the school in the summer of 1955. Inspired by the successful folk schools in Denmark, the Highlander Folk School had been established during the Great Depression in 1932 “to provide an educational center in the South for the training of rural and industrial leaders, and for the conservation and enrichment of the indigenous cultural values of the mountains” (Horton and Freire). It was one of the only racially integrated schools in the South, and despite being the target of persistent racist violence since at least the 1950s (the central office building was torched by arsonists as recently as in 2019), the school came to be affiliated with several civil rights leaders: Dr. King, John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Julian Bond, and more.
One of the most important people at the Highlander Folk School was Septima Clark, a Black former school teacher who had lost her old job due to her activity in the civil rights movement. While Clark was attending her first workshop, Highlander founder Myles Horton was so impressed that he hired her soon after as the full-time director of workshops. That summer in 1955, a year after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision was made that federally mandated the desegregation of public schools, Rosa took Septima Clark’s two-week workshop, “Racial Desegregation: Implementing the Supreme Court Decision.” By all accounts, Rosa was quiet and not particularly optimistic about positive change coming to Montgomery, which she described as “complacent.” Nevertheless, the glimpse Rosa received at Highlander of a harmonious and racially integrated future transformed her. Rosa was particularly inspired by Septima Clark’s example: her personal story of losing her career and risking so much else to continue in the movement for civil rights, only to end up at Highlander as a director and equal to White men in the organization. Rosa left Tennessee with some reluctance but with a redoubled conviction, promising to continue working with the NAACP Youth Council for desegregation.
Five months after she had returned to Montgomery, a bus driver demanded Rosa that she give up her seat for White passengers. The driver was none other than James F. Blake, the man who kicked Rosa off the bus 12 years earlier. This time, Rosa refused; when Blake threatened to call the police, she responded, “You may do that.” That night, Edgar Nixon and Clifford Durr bailed her out. Within days, Nixon and the NAACP, led by the Women’s Political Council, had begun organizing a boycott of the Montgomery bus system in Rosa’s defense: a campaign that lasted over a year and which became one of the first major groundbreaking events in the history of civil rights.
A few years later, when the New England Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) bought the “Peace Farm” in Voluntown, predecessor to the Voluntown Peace Trust (VPT), the Highlander Center was one of their major inspirations. Like at Highlander, the CNVA ran community citizenship and activist training workshops from its founding in 1962. Indeed, some of the founding members of the New England CNVA attended courses at Highlander Folk School, and later VPT members have taken workshops at its successor, the Highlander Center, as recently as in the past decade. The Voluntown Peace Trust continued this tradition of community folk education, hosting workshops and other events through the past couple decades: nonviolence training weekends, YouthPeace weekend retreats for high school students, and more. Last year, as the movement for Black lives gained momentum after the murder of George Floyd, VPT started running training workshops online for people wanting to get involved with racial justice in Connecticut. Another run of VPT workshops for 2021 is in the planning stages now.
The Highlander Folk School showed Rosa Parks a vision for a better world and inspired her to assert her rights in “the cradle of the Confederacy.” Five months later in Montgomery, Rosa sparked one of the most foundational campaigns in the civil rights movement. As a fellow folk learning center, VPT seeks to do the same for eastern Connecticut and New England as a whole.
Horton, Myles and Paulo Freire. We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Temple University Press, 1990.
Robnett, Belinda. How Long? How Long? African-American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights. Oxford University Press, 1997.
Theoharis, Jeanne. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Beacon Press, 2013.
Whitaker, Matthew C. Icons of Black America: Breaking Barriers and Crossing Boundaries. ABC-CLIO, 2011.
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