Rosa Parks' activism started long before Montgomery Bus Boycott

Published: Jan. 26, 2016 at 7:55 PM CST|Updated: Jan. 27, 2016 at 3:22 AM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - This past December marked the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott that began when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus. Parks is held in high esteem throughout the country and the world, but few people are aware of her activism before Montgomery, as well as her Tennessee connection.

Rosa Parks was born Rosa MacCauley in February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama. Her activist spirit was cultivated at a young age. Her mother, Leona Edwards was a school teacher who introduced her to reading and black history.

Throughout her young life she witnessed the effects of segregation from the violent treatment of black World War I soldiers returning home to the burning of her school, to her own experiences with harassment by white children as she walked to school. In 1932, she married Raymond Parks. They both became active in the local NAACP chapter. Rosa Parks believed in grassroots activism and in the 1940's, she worked with the NAACP to investigate the rape cases of young women.

In 1955, she received a scholarship to attend a desegregation workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. The Highlander Folk School was founded in 1932 by Myles Horton, Don West, and Jim Dombrowski. The school was based on the 19th century Danish folk schools that Horton had learned about during his travels to Denmark. The Danish schools promoted Danish culture while also addressing social and economic issues.

Highlander was formed with the intention of serving as an adult education center particularly for the laboring class. In the 1950's and 1960's, the school was especially dedicated to dismantling segregation. In 1961, the school lost its charter from the state. The school re-opened the next day as the Highlander Research and Education Center in Knoxville, Tennessee. In 1972, the school relocated to New Market, Tennessee.

At the Highlander School, Parks interacted with whites while learning about important desegregation techniques like selecting the right candidates to challenge local laws and ordinances. All meals, workshops, and sleeping arrangements were integrated. Parks later credited Horton as the reason why she did not hate all white men. Parks came to Highlander with a passion and desire to see equality for African-Americans. Her spirit for justice was innate.  The Highlander School offered her a tool kit through which she was able to channel her sentiments into effective actions throughout her life.

Five months later, Parks initiated a boycott that would launch a new phase in the American civil rights battle. In the aftermath of the Montgomery boycott, Parks relocated to Detroit, Michigan, and continued to be active in the fight for justice. In 1965, she was hired by Congressman John Conyers, as an administrator in his Detroit office. Through her formal position and volunteer work, she continued to use her skills as a community organizer to address the plight of African-Americans in Detroit. In the 1960's, she was also a member of Friends of SNCC, which raised money to support the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's work in the south. In the 1970's and 1980's, Parks remained an active supporter of the fight for civil rights, and frequently participated in protests and demonstrations.

C. Alvin Hughes, "New Agenda for the South: The Role and Influence fo the Highlander Folk School, 1953 – 1961," Phylon 46 (3), 242 – 250.

Highlander Research and Education Center, History,

Jean Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, (Beacon Press: New York, 2014).

Ridley Willis, "Highlander Folk School, Grundy County's "Public Nuisance"," Tennessee Historical Quarterly 66 (4) Tennessee Historical Society: 350- 369.