10 Things You Didn’t Know About Rosa Parks

by Jeanne Theoharis


(from The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis)

1. Parks had been thrown off the bus a decade earlier by the same bus driver — for refusing to pay in the front and go around to the back to board. She had avoided that driver’s bus for twelve years because she knew well the risks of angering drivers, all of whom were white and carried guns. Her own mother had been threatened with physical violence by a bus driver, in front of Parks who was a child at the time. Parks’ neighbor had been killed for his bus stand, and teenage protester Claudette Colvin, among others, had recently been badly manhandled by the police.

2. Parks was a lifelong believer in self-defense. Malcolm X was her personal hero. Her family kept a gun in the house, including during the boycott, because of the daily terror of white violence. As a child, when pushed by a white boy, she pushed back. His mother threatened to kill her, but Parks stood her ground. Another time, she held a brick up to a white bully, daring him to follow through on his threat to hit her. He went away. When the Klu Klux Klan went on rampages through her childhood town, Pine Level, Ala., her grandfather would sit on the porch all night with his rifle. Rosa stayed awake some nights, keeping vigil with him.

3. Her husband was her political partner. Parks said Raymond was “the first real activist I ever met.” Initially she wasn’t romantically interested because Raymond was more light-skinned than she preferred, but she became impressed with his boldness and “that he refused to be intimidated by white people.” When they met he was working to free the nine Scottsboro boys and she joined these efforts after they were married. At Raymond’s urging, Parks, who had to drop out in the eleventh grade to care for her sick grandmother, returned to high school and got her diploma. Raymond’s input was crucial to Parks’ political development and their partnership sustained her political work over many decades.

4. Many of Parks’ ancestors were Indians. She noted this to a friend who was surprised when in private Parks removed her hairpins and revealed thick braids of wavy hair that fell below her waist. Her husband, she said, liked her hair long and she kept it that way for many years after his death, although she never wore it down in public. Aware of the racial politics of hair and appearance, she tucked it away in a series of braids and buns — maintaining a clear division between her public presentation and private person.

5. Parks’ arrest had grave consequences for her family’s health and economic well-being. After her arrest, Parks was continually threatened, such that her mother talked for hours on the phone to keep the line busy from constant death threats. Parks and her husband lost their jobs after her stand and didn’t find full employment for nearly ten years. Even as she made fundraising appearances across the country, Parks and her family were at times nearly destitute. She developed painful stomach ulcers and a heart condition, and suffered from chronic insomnia. Raymond, unnerved by the relentless harassment and death threats, began drinking heavily and suffered two nervous breakdowns. The black press, culminating in JET magazine’s July 1960 story on “the bus boycott’s forgotten woman,” exposed the depth of Parks’ financial need, leading civil rights groups to finally provide some assistance.

6. Parks spent more than half of her life in the North. The Parks family had to leave Montgomery eight months after the boycott ended. She lived for most of that time in Detroit in the heart of the ghetto, just a mile from the epicenter of the 1967 Detroit riot. There, she spent nearly five decades organizing and protesting racial inequality in “the promised land that wasn’t.”

7. In 1965 Parks got her first paid political position, after over two decades of political work. After volunteering for Congressman John Conyers’s long shot political campaign,

Parks helped secure his primary victory by convincing Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to Detroit on Conyers’s behalf. He later hired her to work with constituents as an administrative assistant in his Detroit office. For the first time since her bus stand, Parks finally had a salary, access to health insurance, and a pension — and the restoration of dignity that a formal paid position allowed.

8. Parks was far more radical than has been understood. She worked alongside the Black Power movement, particularly around issues such as reparations, black history, anti-police brutality, freedom for black political prisoners, independent black political power, and economic justice. She attended the Black Political Convention in Gary and the Black Power conference in Philadelphia. She journeyed to Lowndes County, Alabama to support the movement there, spoke at the Poor People’s Campaign, helped organize support committees on behalf of black political prisoners such as the Wilmington 10 and Imari Obadele of the Republic of New Africa, and paid a visit of support to the Black Panther school in Oakland, CA.

9. Parks was an internationalist. She was an early opponent of the Vietnam War in the early 1960s, a member of The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and a supporter of the Winter Soldier hearings in Detroit and the Jeannette Rankin Brigade protest in D.C. In the 1980s, she protested apartheid and U.S. complicity, joining a picket outside the South African embassy and opposed U.S. policy in Central America. Eight days after 9/11, she joined other activists in a letter calling on the United States to work with the international community and no retaliation or war.

10. Parks was a lifelong activist and a hero to many, including Nelson Mandela. After his release from prison, he told her, “You sustained me while I was in prison all those years.”

The Occupation of Wall Street: an Idea Whose Time Has Come

The first day of the Tory Party conference in Manchester was completely upstaged by the huge anti-austerity demonstration outside, comprised of 30,000 plus trade unionists, students, pensioners, the unemployed and others whose lives are being turned upside down by an economic policy that increasingly resembles a vast experiment in human despair.

Up until now the Coalition has more or less had a free run in the media with its mantra of cuts and austerity in response to the global recession, pandering to the interests of international bondholders and investors as more of a priority than protecting public services and the jobs of millions of ordinary people up and down the country.

In fact the nation has been bombarded by the government’s pro cuts propaganda since the election, resulting in most people accepting that there will have to be at least some cuts. In this though they happen to be correct, and we should be careful when making the argument against the government’s economic policy not to sidestep the incontrovertible facts in support of certain cuts, which I’ll get back to in a minute.

Before that it is worth reiterating how this recession came about in the first place, if only to highlight the lies which are being employed to make the argument in favour of the government’s assault on public spending and the public sector as a whole.

In late 2007 a banking crisis which emanated from the US as a consequence subprime lending hit the UK when Northern Rock, a bank built almost solely around its mortgage business, came unstuck after it was unable to continue selling on its mortgage debt as bonds on the international markets when they dried up, thereby shutting off its cash flow. A run on the back resulted in its share price tumbling and it being unable to continue servicing its existing debts. After an unsuccessful attempt to sell the bank to another private owner, the then Labour government took it over, effectively nationalising it.

This succeeded in stabilising the bank, but due to the international dimension of the credit crunch that was unfolding other UK banks soon also found themselves in dire straits and threatened with complete collapse the government stepped in to bail them out too. Overall, the bailout of the British banking system since the start of the banking crisis has amounted to a staggering £850 billion (around 40 percent of GDP).

But while this intervention saved the banking system from collapse, the government failed to prevent the ripple effect of the crisis from reaching the rest of the economy. A lack of political will informed the then Labour government’s refusal to take the step that was fundamental to protecting the entire economy by taking the banks into public ownership in order not only to underwrite their debts and customer deposits, but also to direct their operations. This refusal led to a situation where the banks, continuing to operate according to market norms after having been bailed out, essentially shut up shop and refused to continue to lend to small businesses and customers, many of which could not survive without ready access to overdrafts and loans in order to maintain cash flows. This resulted in businesses going bust, which created a spike in unemployment and a concomitant collapse in tax revenues.

Since coming to power, the Coalition has exerted itself in deflecting the argument away from the role of the banks and the City in causing the recession, while at the same time shifting its consequences onto the poor and ordinary people, first by putting up VAT to 20 percent, then with an attack on the welfare state and public sector workers. In line with these measures they have outdone themselves in placing the blame on Labour’s failure to properly regulate the banks and the size of the nation’s ‘structural deficit’ (the disparity between tax revenue and public spending out with the deficit resulting from the bank bailout) while in office. What Cameron and Clegg et al. don’t inform the public is that the economy’s structural deficit is not fixed in stone, and that with the ability to raise revenue through taxation, and to increase output via currency controls and interest rates, the government possesses the ability to reduce the structural deficit without making drastic cuts in spending.

During the boom years New Labour borrowed to invest in education, the NHS, and various capital investment projects at one end of the economic spectrum, filling the massive investment gap that was bequeathed the country by the Tories, while keeping taxes low at the other in order to appease big business and the rich. The main rate of corporation tax came down to 28 percent under New Labour, making it the lowest of any G7 economy. Under Thatcher it came down from 52 percent to 35 percent. George Osborne now plans to lower it still further to 24 percent.

The extent to which Labour under Blair and Brown embraced free market orthodoxy is evident in the light touch regulation of the banking and financial sector that was employed, a lack of investment in other sectors of the economy, especially manufacturing, the introduction of PFI and PPP contracts, whereby private capital was employed to help fund and in many instances take over the provision of public services, and the maintenance and indeed deepening of the UK as a tax friendly environment for the rich, resulting in London assuming the dubious honour of being the location of choice for the world’s super rich. Add to this the preponderance of tax avoidance schemes that were made available and you had the disgusting scenario whereby Barclays Bank paid just 1 percent in corporation tax in 2009 on profits of £11.6 billion.

Contrary to what the government tells us there is an alternative path out of recession. It is one which places a priority on investment, progressive taxation and jobs. A public works programme to alleviate the housing crisis, investment in a publicly owned and modern transport system, improving the roads, in manufacturing and in the Green economy would create jobs which would increase tax revenues. Moreover, the multiplier effect of this economic stimulus would more than offset the cost of any borrowing involved.

When it comes to cuts, these should take the form of cuts to Trident, bankers’ bonuses, executive salaries, tax avoidance schemes, and public subsidy to the private rail monopolies and utility companies, both of which should be returned to public ownership as a matter of priority.

Overall, what is required is government intervention in the organisation, ownership and direction of the UK economy, the fundamentals that once informed the thinking of a Labour Party that created the welfare state, public pensions, free education, and the social cohesion which the present right wing coalition government is intent on destroying, thus finishing the job begun by Thatcher in the 1980s, continued by John Major and then Tony Blair, both of whom proved worthy heirs to the Iron Lady’s legacy.

As any of the thousands of demonstrators in Manchester outside the Tory Party conference at the weekend know, the UK economy relies on the welfare state and the public sector as a ballast of demand. Without it the private sector will be unable to function and the recession will get worse.

There are those who argue that if we tax the rich in a manner which befits a civilised society, and if we bear down on the City in order to end its economic stranglehold over the entire country, we will merely precipitate a mass exodus. However, blackmail of this type should be rejected out of hand else the entire country will be plunged into economic and social freefall.

Under this government, which has only been in office since last May, we’ve seen two sets of riots, the first by students protesting the hike in tuition fees last winter, the second by disaffected youth in England’s inner cities. We’ve had the single biggest trade union demonstration in London in March, when over 300,000 people took to the streets in opposition to the Tories and their austerity programme, and now we’ve just had the largest demonstration outside a Conservative Party conference since Thatcher was in power.

None yet has had any meaningful impact on the determination of the Tories to proceed with what increasingly resembles a vast experiment in human despair.

This leaves open the only step that so far hasn’t been employed: a mass campaign of civil disobedience. Here the example of our American cousins looms large. The ongoing occupation of Wall Street has continued and grown to the point where it has become a main item across US news networks. More and more people in the US are waking up to the fact that their only weapon is the collective will to action. Echoes of Tahrir Square in Cairo are currently resonating in Wall Street, where for the first time since this crisis broke people in the US are standing up against the economic juggernaut that is trampling over the lives and livelihoods of millions.

Their example must be the catalyst for action here. The occupation of the City of London is overdue. Enough is enough.