Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Real Rosa Parks

Thank You, Rosa Parks

by Steve Chase

Four years ago, I founded a one-of-a-kind master's program at Antioch New England Graduate School to train public interest advocates and grassroots organizers working for environmental protection, corporate accountability, and social justice. People have occasionally asked me what inspired me to dream up the Environmental Advocacy and Organizing program. My answer is always the same: Rosa Parks.

Parks, who died at home last week, became famous in 1955 when she refused to move to the back of a segregated bus for a white man. She was immediately arrested, and her act of defiance sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which won the first major victory against legal segregation in the South and launched a national movement for civil rights.

People can usually see how Rosa Parks sparked my interest in nonviolent activism for the common good. What they don't get is how she inspired my interest in activist training and education.

Like most people, I used to think that Rosa Parks was just a tired, middle-aged seamstress who got fed up with the indignities of racism on the evening of December 1, 1955. However, when I was a teenager, an older Quaker activist told me the real story of Rosa Parks.

For starters, Parks was a seasoned activist, not a novice. She had been an active member of her local NAACP chapter for over twelve years before refusing to move to the back of the bus, and she had participated in many discussions about how to launch a successful campaign against segregation. Contrary to the conventional story, her act of civil disobedience was pre-planned and aimed at sparking a powerful movement for freedom.

Secondly, Parks was a trained activist. The summer before her famous act of civil disobedience, Parks attended a ten-day activist training workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. During a radio interview years later, Studs Terkel asked Parks what role Highlander played in her decision to act. Parks answered, "Everything."

Highlander Folk School was founded in the 1930s by Myles Horton. His vision for the school was to bring poor and oppressed people together, encourage them to grapple with their everyday social problems, provide an arena for deep political reflection, and, ultimately, provide training workshops in the skills and strategies of social movement organizing.

During the 1930s and the early 1940s, Highlander focused its educational programs on the southern labor movement. By the early 1950s, Highlander moved into civil rights activism and Horton brought together blacks and whites interested in confronting the problem of segregation.

To deepen the effectiveness of this work, Horton hired Septima Clark, the School's first black staff member, as his Education Director. A public school teacher who had been fired and blacklisted because of her volunteer work with the NAACP, Clark cemented Highlander's ties over the years with many of the people who eventually became leaders of such groups as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

At Highlander, these people were encouraged by both Horton and Clark to take what they learned and apply it in their own communities. As Horton said to generations of participants at Highlander's training workshops: "The way to use this information is not to say that we have learned a lot, and isn't it wonderful and great to have been at Highlander.... You're here to act on it. This is education for action. Now, how are you going to act on this? Let's just plan what you're going to do when you go back."

In her own recollection of Parks' first visit to Highlander, Septima Clark reports how Parks struggled with her fears over taking the kind of daring action against segregation being discussed by workshop participants and Highlander's trainers. As Clark remembers it: "Rosa Parks was afraid for white people to know that she was as militant as she was. She didn't even want to speak before the whites that she met
at Highlander, because she was afraid they would take it back to the whites in Montgomery. After she talked it out in that workshop that morning and she went back home, then she decided that 'I'm not going to move out of that seat.'"

With her dramatic action a few months later, Parks earned her "diploma" from Highlander and rightly became revered as the grandmother of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Unknown to her, she also inspired the creation of a two-year activist training program in Keene, New Hampshire a little over 46 years after her big day.

Thank you, Rosa Parks.

Steve Chase is the director of the Department of Environmental Studies'
Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program
at Antioch New England
Graduate School.

Reprinted with permission from the Keene Sentinel, November 1, 2005


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