Editor’s note: Danielle McGuire is the author of “At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance-a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.” She is an Assistant Professor in the History Department at Wayne State University, and a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. She lives with her husband and two children in metro Detroit.
By Danielle McGuire, Special to CNN
(CNN) – In 2011, Rosa Parks was in the news, six years after her death. An excerpt from a breathtaking essay she wrote in the 1950s about a “near rape” by a white man in Alabama was released to the public. The handwritten narrative detailed Parks’ steely resistance to a white man, “Mr. Charlie,” who attempted to assault her in 1931 while she was working as a domestic for a white family.
It was late evening when “Mr. Charlie” pushed his way into the house and tried to have sex with her. Having grown up in the segregated South, she knew all too well the special vulnerabilities black women faced. She recalled, for example, how her great-grandmother, a slave, had been “mistreated and abused” by her white master.
Despite her fear, she refused to let the same thing happen to her. “I knew that no matter what happened,” she wrote, “I would never yield to this white man’s bestiality.” “I was ready to die,” she said, “but give my consent, never. Never, never.” Parks was absolutely defiant: “If he wanted to kill me and rape a dead body,” she said, “he was welcome, but he would have to kill me first.”
Does that sound like the Rosa Parks we know?
Some of the guardians of Parks’ legacy have said it is not, and insist the essay was fiction. But by dismissing the writings as fiction, it retains the popular image of Rosa Parks as a simple seamstress whose singular and spontaneous act launched the civil rights movement that brought down the walls of segregation.
This popular presentation of Parks as a quiet but courageous woman, whose humble righteousness shamed America into doing what was right has become a mythic fable present in nearly every high school history textbook, museum exhibit, and memorial.
She has been imprisoned by this tale, frozen in time as a silent and saintly icon whose only real action was to stay seated so that, in the words of her many eulogists, “we could all stand up.”
This overly simplistic story makes it impossible to imagine her essay about Mr. Charlie as anything but fiction.
But what if we knew more about the real Rosa Parks—a militant race woman and sharp detective whose career as a human rights activist spanned seven decades?
It’s time to free Rosa Parks from the bus.
Rosa Parks had a history of being defiant, and her fierce response to Mr. Charlie in the essay echoes her lifelong history of resistance to white supremacy. She learned about racial pride and self-defense at her grandfather’s knee in the 1910s.
Sylvester Edwards was a fan of the Jamaican-born black nationalist, Marcus Garvey, and delighted young Rosa with stories of Garvey’s greatness. She was especially proud of her grandfather’s willingness to defend himself and his family from the daily terror of the Ku Klux Klan in Pine Level, Alabama.
“Whatever happened,” she said, “I wanted to see it … I wanted to see him shoot that gun. I wasn’t going to be caught asleep.” This spirit of defense and defiance, she said later, “had been passed down almost in our genes’ that a proud African-American can not accept “bad treatment from anybody.”
In the 1930s, Rosa Parks joined her husband Raymond and others in secret meetings to defend the Scottsboro boys—nine young African-American men accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. In the 1940s, they hosted Voter League meetings, where they encouraged neighbors to register even though it was a dangerous task. In 1943, she joined the Montgomery NAACP and was elected branch secretary. The job required Parks to investigate and document acts of racist and sexist brutality.
It was in this context, in 1944, that Rosa Parks investigated the brutal gang-rape of Recy Taylor, a black woman from Abbeville, Alabama.
Parks took Taylor’s testimony back to Montgomery, where she and other activists organized the “Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor.” They launched what the Chicago Defender called the “strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade.” In 1948, she gave a fiery speech at the state NAACP convention criticizing President Harry Truman’s civil rights initiatives. “No one should feel proud,” she said, “when Negroes every day are being molested.”
Foot fatigue played no role when she refused to relinquish her seat on December 1, 1955. “There had to be a stopping place,” she said, “and this seemed to be the place for me to stop being pushed around. I had decided that I would have to know once and for all what rights I had as a human being and a citizen, even in Montgomery, Alabama.”
Constant death threats forced her to leave Alabama in 1957. When she arrived in Detroit she continued working as an activist. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, she worked to secure “Black Power,” fought for open housing and against police brutality, railed against the war in Vietnam, and campaigned for George McGovern. She was an ardent fan of Malcolm X and Robert F. Williams, a militant NAACP leader from North Carolina who advocated “armed self-reliance.” She admired Williams so much that she delivered the eulogy at his funeral in 1996.
Given Parks’ history, her defiance of “Mr. Charlie” in 1931 makes perfect sense and fits within a larger context of resistance to the inhumanity of racism and sexism. Instead of a tired seamstress who tiptoed into history, Rosa Parks was a woman who marched proudly with strength, conviction, and purpose.
It is this Rosa Parks that we ought to celebrate and honor. Her history as an active citizen engaged in the most pressing issues of her time – especially racial and sexual violence –can teach us how to do the same in ours.
This strikes me particularly because who benefits from making “Mr. Charlie” a work of fiction? Three guesses and the first two don’t count.
We’re comfortable with a history of racism that focuses on drinking fountains and buses. We can even roll with lynchings, because we can tell ourselves that was a long time ago and we don’t do that anymore (we just shoot black men instead). But we don’t want to deal with the history that involves white male violence against black women. Because that’s still happening and we don’t want to acknowledge it now, either.
Even if Rosa Parks wrote that piece as fiction — which, I want to make clear, I do not believe for a second — she would have written it in response to the many, many incidents of its kind that happened to women she knew. Even as fiction, the story is truth.
It’s real convenient to roll up “the black experience” into one amorphous mess that doesn’t talk about how black women suffered sexual violence, how their gender and race combined to make them vulnerable. It means you don’t have to talk about how white men regard all women’s bodies as their rightful property, and how they don’t even feel like they have to pretend otherwise when dealing with black women.
And it’s real convenient to see Rosa Parks as a woman who only ever had to deal with buses and drinking fountains, when with all we know about the history of racism, that’s horribly implausible.