News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

February 13, 2023

Learning From Rosa Parks on Transit Equity Day

By: The People’s Transit Alliance

5 minute read

tw: racism, sexual assault

This past Saturday, Feb. 4th, 2023, was Transit Equity Day, “a collaborative effort of several organizations and unions to promote public transit as a civil right and a strategy to combat climate change…” organized by Labor 4 Sustainability

For Transit Equity Day 2023, the People’s Transit Alliance held a canvass of transit riders in Downtown Berkeley to discuss what improvements could be made to the bus system, the planned service redesign, and the importance of transit workers and riders building power together.

Labor 4 Sustainability chose Feb. 4th, Rosa Parks’ birthday, in order to honor her legacy as a civil rights icon, and her courageous action taken on a segregated bus on December 1, 1955. Those of us raised in the United States know the story of Rosa Parks, and her refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger.

What is less well known is her long history as an organizer for the NAACP, her radical politics, and her lifelong commitment to fighting white supremacy in the United States. 

The People’s Transit Alliance wishes to share this neglected side of Rosa Parks’ story. As we organize in her name, we must disrupt the whitewashed version of her life that is taught in schools, and used by politicians and corporations to maintain the very systems of oppression that she spent her life fighting against.

Rosa Louise McCauley was born on February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama. She grew up with her maternal grandparents and mother. Her grandfather was a follower of Marcus Garvey, and taught young Parks the importance of self-defense, sitting on his porch with a shotgun when the Ku Klux Klan came into town.

She was a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church for her entire life, where she learned a “theology of liberation that affirmed the equality of all people, laid forth a Christian responsibility to act and provided sustenance to struggle against injustice.”

Mrs. Parks first met her husband, Raymond Parks, while he worked as an organizer on the Scottsboro Boys case. Mr. Parks was a committed activist and revolutionary, who often had to hold secret meetings and avoid police, who were seeking to harass and arrest him for his activism. He and Mrs. Parks attended Communist Party meetings, and worked with other important socialist and communist organizers in the Deep South.

Mrs. Parks began working with the Montgomery NAACP in 1943, where she would soon meet E.D. Nixon. Nixon, Parks, and a small group of activists at the NAACP would lay the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement in the decade leading up to the bus boycott. 

Parks worked as the secretary of both the Montgomery and Alabama State chapters of the NAACP, seeking justice for black women who had been raped by white men, and black men who had been wrongly accused of sexually assaulting white women.

She and Nixon represented a working class presence at the NAACP, which was often dominated by more affluent members of the black community. When the national NAACP directed local chapters to expel members with socialist or communist tendencies, Parks spoke out against the purge. The Montgomery chapter refused to carry out the resolution.

On December 1, 1955, when Mrs. Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus, she was not the first to do so. Claudette Colvin, who was 15 years old at the time of her arrest, had refused to give up their seat months before Parks, as had others.

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted Feb. 22, 1956 as one of the instigators of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
(Associated Press via Wikimedia Commons)

In fact, it was a case against Colvin, not Parks, that was brought before the Supreme Court and led to the decision that bus segregation was illegal.

Parks’ decision to remain in her seat was not wholly spontaneous, but a result of her growing frustration with the lack of success that negotiating with the city government had produced, as well as an intimate understanding of the consequences of taking such an action.

Often, Parks’ role in the boycott is diminished. Rather, it is seen as the moment where Martin Luther King Jr. achieved national prominence. However, this version of events ignores Parks’ work as a carpool operator, and a key member of the inner circle of organizers at the Montgomery NAACP.

Eventually, due to death threats, red baiting, an inability to find work in Montgomery, and disagreements over the direction of the Civil Rights movement, Mrs. Parks and her husband were forced to move to Detroit.

In Detroit, Mrs. Parks worked tirelessly as an organizer, particularly focused on freeing political prisoners, expanding access to reproductive rights, defending the rights of women prisoners, and defending black women who had been sexually assaulted. She was a primary organizer of the Joann Little Defense Committee.

Rosa Parks’ politics were truly radical, and clearly opposed to the goals and actions of the powerful politicians who claim to honor her legacy today. She called Malcolm X her personal political hero, and believed in the power of organized nonviolent direct action and the moral right to self-defense.

In 1973, she wrote a letter that included the statement, “The attempt to solve our racial problems nonviolently was discredited in the eyes of many by the hard core segregationists who met peaceful demonstrations with countless acts of violence and bloodshed. Time is running out for a peaceful solution. It may even be too late to save our society from total destruction.”

She was a committed supporter of the Black Power movement, showing up to support radical organizations such as The Black Panthers and working alongside the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and Republic of New Afrika in the wake of the 1967 Detroit Riots.

She was also an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, apartheid in South Africa, and the march towards war in the aftermath of 9/11.

To recount the entirety of her activism, organizing, and incredible life is beyond the scope of this article. Rather, our goal with this piece is to shed light on an important piece of history that is often ignored, in favor of a quiet, modest Rosa Parks.

Organizing around public transit was not her primary political project but rather one part of a broader struggle against white supremacy, patriarchy, and imperialism. On this Transit Equity Day and beyond, The People’s Transit Alliance seeks to carry Parks’ radical history into the present and imagine organizing for a better transit system as one part of a broader struggle.

When we organize transit workers and riders, we build power at a key political and economic intersection in the East Bay. We reconnect organized labor with a radical political project, and develop concrete strategies to improve the working conditions of those that operate the transit system, which in turn improves riding conditions.

Public transit serves the East Bay’s multiracial working class. It ensures that workers can get to their jobs, the grocery store, doctor’s appointments, places of worship, friends and family, and access all parts of the city.

Improving public transit alleviates the economic burden of maintaining a car, lowers the carbon emissions that deepen the climate crisis and pollute the air we breathe, improves mobility for disabled people, and provides critical access to the working poor of the East Bay.

Transit organizing is a key priority in the fight against white supremacy, the climate crisis, patriarchy, and liberation of the working class. To honor Rosa Parks on Transit Equity Day, we must remember that we are still fighting the same systems of oppression she began fighting more than 80 years ago.

Solidarity forever!

Note: For further reading about the incredible contributions of Rosa Parks to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, please visit these links:

The People’s Transit Alliance is a project of East Bay DSA, organizing for an equitable, democratically controlled transit system that serves the multiracial working class of the East Bay and beyond.