This is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement and an initiative that includes Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that will use the lens of history, the fabric of art and culture and the venue of the public square to shine a light into dark places, equipping all with a compass to chart the way forward. The initiative lives in the institutional home of the Washington Informer Charities.
In October 2005, Rosa Parks died of natural causes, and the world mourned a civil rights icon.
Yet most Americans are only familiar with the made-for-TV version of Parks, while many historians had documented Parks’ sacrifice and commitment to social justice and equity.
“The sanitized versions view Parks as a dignified, graceful and respectable Southern Black woman. Historians have portrayed Parks as an activist and social justice warrior,” said David Canton, an associate professor of history and director of Africana studies at Connecticut College.
“Rosa Parks was an activist long before she became the ‘mother of the civil rights movement,’” Canton added.
The professor noted that Parks actively fought sexual assault in Alabama as well as for Black women’s suffrage.
In 1920, the Supreme Court passed the 19th Amendment that allowed women’s suffrage, but in the South, only middle-class Black women, who could afford to pay the poll tax, were permitted to vote.
“Parks fought to get all Black Southern women to vote, and in 1965, a decade after Montgomery, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act,” Canton said.
After the bus boycott, racist backlash ensued.
“The Parks family could not get any employment and were forced to leave Alabama. They relocated to Detroit, Michigan, and former congressman John Conyers hired Parks where she had remained active in civil rights,” Canton said.
In 1984, Parks and civil rights activist Joe Madison asked African Americans to boycott Dearborn, Michigan because the city had passed an ordinance that prohibited Blacks from Detroit from using their playgrounds.
In Michigan, all Black women had the right to vote, but Parks supported gender equity and participated in both women and Black women’s movements.
“Rosa Parks understood that racism existed in the women’s movement and she made sure that white women did not marginalize Black women’s perspective,” Canton said.
In 2013, eight years after Parks’ death, the Supreme Court ruling in the Shelby v. Holder case allowed states to change voting rules without any clearance from the federal government.
Since 2013, over 1,000 polling places have closed in many Southern states, and this has had a disproportionate impact on Black voters.
“Any Republican politician who had visited Parks’ body in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda and who have not fought to end voter suppression but said they support Rosa Parks’ life and work, they have disrespected her legacy and are bald-faced liars,” Canton said.