Every once in a while I get lucky and ride one of the buses with the small plaque to the memory of Rosa Parks over the seats on the left side at the front of the bus. I wish it were larger, and I wish it could somehow make clear that anyone who rides the bus can sit wherever they want. Rosa Parks played a large part in making that happen.
Recently, though, I read an article about the movement for women’s suffrage and how much women of color, especially in the 19th century, were a part of it—a part that’s largely been erased from the history of the movement. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (September 24, 1825 – February 22, 1911) was a writer, journalist, teacher, abolitionist, and suffragist. In May 1866 she delivered a speech to the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention in New York City and cited, among other things, her treatment on public transportation. Here’s part of her speech:
You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs. I, as a colored woman, have had in this country an education which has made me feel as if I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man’s hand against me. Let me go to-morrow morning and take my seat in one of your street cars-I do not know that they will do it in New York, but they will in Philadelphia-and the conductor will put up his hand and stop the car rather than let me ride.
Going from Washington to Baltimore this Spring, they put me in the smoking car. Aye, in the capital of the nation, where the black man consecrated himself to the nation’s defence, faithful when the white man was faithless, they put me in the smoking car! They did it once; but the next time they tried it, they failed; for I would not go in. I felt the fight in me; but I don’t want to have to fight all the time. Today I am puzzled where to make my home. I would like to make it in Philadelphia, near my own friends and relations. But if I want to ride in the streets of Philadelphia, they send me to ride on the platform with the driver. Have women nothing to do with this? Not long since, a colored woman took her seat in an Eleventh Street car in Philadelphia, and the conductor stopped the car, and told the rest of the passengers to get out, and left the car with her in it alone, when they took it back to the station. One day I took my seat in a car, and the conductor came to me and told me to take another seat. I just screamed “murder.” The man said if I was black I ought to behave myself. I knew that if he was white he was not behaving himself. Are there not wrongs to be righted?
You can read the entire speech at Black Past, and note that she shared a stage with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Harper was speaking out eighty-nine years before Rosa Parks took a stand by remaining seated, which adds depth and context to the history of the civil rights movement, which is something to consider even now, when there are still wrongs to be righted.
I had a little CNN running in the background yesterday morning while I caught up with some computer stuff, and there was a woman on there talking about Rosa Parks and how she was misunderstood as a quiet resistor who wouldn’t give up her seat, but the truth is she was a loud voice against inequality in her time. A leader in the fight against Jim Crow. I admit that I was ignorant of that aspect of her as well. Amazing the number of things we do not know. Amazing the number of things we have allowed and allow still …
Looking back at the story of Rosa Parks I was taught in school, that she was merely an ordinary woman who just happened to be exhausted that particular day, I think how I never fully bought it, and I wish I’d been taught that her story was so much more complicated and that her decision not to give up her seat was very deliberate. And I try to take hope in Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It’s just hard to grasp how long it is, and the fact that it’s not a foregone conclusion that justice will happen.
Excellent post, Chris, which will stay a long time in my memory.
Your comments are always memorable to me.
What a great story. We learned the Rosa Parks story in school, but not the rest. Thanks for the education.
It’s really a shame that the story of Rosa Parks most of us were taught in school leaves out so much of what an extraordinary person she was.