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Claude Clegg
Department of History

Amrita Myers
Department of History

Last modified: Thursday, August 30, 2007

Civil Rights Movement

March 21, 2007

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Legends are important but sometimes not entirely accurate.

For example, many people believe that 50 years ago in Montgomery, Ala., Rosa Parks "got on a bus and changed history," as one newspaper account recently put it. Parks was ordered to give up her seat to a white person, she refused, and the entire civil rights movement sprang full-blown from that simple incident.

If you think that sounds a little far-fetched, you're right.

Photo by: Chris Meyer

Claude Clegg, Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences for Graduate Education and Program Development

"There had been prior bus boycotts in Baton Rouge, Tallahassee, even in Montgomery, but people didn't rally around those individuals the way they did for Rosa Parks," said Claude Clegg, professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington.

Rosa Parks was a member of NAACP, had tried to register to vote and had even been ejected from buses before. This incident was not her first, Clegg said: "She was part of a larger dynamic that was going on in the African American community."

For example, another black woman did the same thing as Rosa Parks, but she was a young unwed mother -- not a good role model who would get sympathetic coverage in the press and gain the support of whites, pointed out Amrita Myers, assistant professor of history at IU Bloomington, who teaches a class on the role of black women in the Civil Rights Movement. So the leaders of the movement waited until a more suitable person presented herself. The matronly Rosa Parks was such a person.

Rosa Parks rode the same bus every day to work, Myers said, and she knew what the consequences of a confrontation would be. She made the choice to confront the system. The organization [WHICH ONE?] was ready to exploit the opportunity when it occurred, and 23,000 pamphlets were run off in 24 hours and plastered all over the community.

Rosa Parks' gender was important in appealing for support from whites, Myers noted. She was seen as a "damsel in distress."

"What we don't hear about is the work that went on for years in Montgomery that led up to Rosa Parks' famous bus ride," Myers said. Movement members had been talking for a long time about making the bus system a target for activity. Eighty percent of the Montgomery bus riders were black, for example, but there were no black bus drivers, and the black passengers were treated badly, she said.

Joann Robinson is an example of a significant black female activist in Montgomery who is overlooked now, Myers said. Robinson was active in the Women's Political Council.

It would be more accurate to talk about plural civil rights movements, Clegg said, such as the lower class civil rights movement (where the issues were a living wage and health care), the middle class civil rights movement and the professional civil rights movement.