Rosa Parks: Mother of the Civil Rights Movement

By El-Kati, Mahmoud | Diversity Employers, February 2006 | Go to article overview

Rosa Parks: Mother of the Civil Rights Movement


El-Kati, Mahmoud, Diversity Employers


Rosa Parks, given her humble and gracious disposition, would probably reject the label, "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement." With a profound respect for history, she was acutely aware that the movement for human and civil rights existed well before her birth in 1913. She understood that she was part of the ongoing struggle for human progress, which echoed from the days of Frederick Douglass, who died in 1895, just 18 years before her birth.

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A bit of background: Also in 1895, Booker T. Washington, the "Wizard from Tuskegee," delivered his famous speech, "The Atlanta Compromise," which some considered a surrender to the doctrine of white supremacy. In the following year of 1896, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which decreed the doctrine of "separate but equal," better known as segregation.

This decision, in effect, legally sanctioned that whites belonged to a superior caste, and that Black people were inferior to whites--bordering on "untouch-ability." By this time the promising, Republican-sponsored "big government" Reconstruction program established to aid African people in the transition from slavery to living in a "free" society had failed. And, its failure was largely due to the betrayal of Black people by the then in power Republican Party. After the Civil War, reunification of the white North and the white South was affected at the expense of Black people's freedom. After the election of 1876, Black progress rapidly spiraled downward.

By the end of the 19th Century, Black Americans had been effectively re-suppressed into a modified condition of enslavement as peons to the new systems' super-exploitation of their labor in the former Confederate states. Besides the public humiliation and degradation of being treated unequally on public transportation, in restaurants, in theaters, in public parks and libraries and sports arenas, ad infinitum, an explosion of unspeakable crimes were committed against Black people. Lynchings, burnings at the stake, bombings, castrations, slayings on the roadside and invasions of Black communities by the Ku Klux Klan were commonplace.

Public officials sworn to uphold the law were often among the leaders of these violent acts. This was a period in the Black experience that historians call the "nadir period," or the low point, the worst of Black suffering. Rosa Parks, given her upbringing and involvement in social issues, had a keen awareness of this sordid history. Such terror surrounded the environment into which she was born and raised.

In the first decade of the 20th Century, Black Americans began their first wavering and persistent steps toward organizing to reclaim lost civil rights, and to demand their God-given rights as a part of the human family. In 1905, the Niagara Movement was founded by the likes of W.E.B. DuBois and William Monroe Trotter. They met with more than two dozen other Black thought leaders in Niagara Falls, Canada. It was here that a resolute declaration was made: "We demand for ourselves every right enjoyed by freeborn Americans. We will take not one jot less than our full manhood rights, and until we get these rights we shall never cease to assail and protest to the ears of America."

It can be strenuously argued that this formal protest at the dawn of the 20th Century initiated what would later be known as the Civil Rights Movement. Back then, and up until post-World War II, the movement was simply called, "The Negro Question." Both DuBois and Trotter were Harvard-trained natives of New England, and among the most radical thought leaders in Black America of that day. In 1909, the militant Niagara Movement merged with a progressive collection of whites. Mary White Ovington, a Radcliffe graduate, descendant of abolitionists, and a social worker who lived in a Negro tenement in New York, issued a call to other concerned whites. …

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