A Lifetime of Organizing: What Rosa Parks Can Teach Us

Organizing Matters

Volume CVI, No. 2February, 2006

Alan Cage

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On the night of Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and took a courageous stand that for millions would come to symbolize the civil rights movement. The act itself was a simple one. When asked by the bus driver to relinquish her seat to a white passenger, Rosa refused. For this she was arrested and fined for violating the segregation laws.

In the following days, community leaders and activists organized the historic Montgomery bus boycott, which lasted for nearly 13 months. The overwhelming majority of Montgomery’s nearly 40,000 black riders honored it, with some walking as far as 20 miles each day to arrive at their destinations. The boycott —along with the accompanying legal battle — was ultimately successful in ending legal segregation on public buses nationwide, and is largely credited by historians as igniting the civil rights movement.

Most of us know this story. What often goes untold, however, is that Rosa Parks was not just a seamstress who was tired or fed up after a long day of work, but a longtime activist dedicated to the cause of social justice. She was not the first person that refused to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery bus, nor was she the first person arrested for it. But this time would be different from the others.

This historic moment in time was the culmination of many years of hard work and dedication by countless unsung individuals and organizations involved in the fight for racial justice. The NAACP and leaders of other black organizations around Montgomery were prepared to take on a long and protracted struggle challenging segregation on Montgomery buses, and strategically chose Rosa as an upstanding citizen who would be able to withstand the intense scrutiny associated with a high-profile legal battle.

During the boycott and trials, Rosa lost her job and faced ongoing death threats and harassment. But her stance was unwavering. Her experience as a grassroots activist had prepared her for this: it gave her the perspective, skills and endurance to withstand all of the challenges that came her way.

Long before she stepped on that bus in 1955, Rosa had been elected secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, and was active in voter registration drives. Rosa had also attended the Highlander Folk School, an educational center for workers’ rights and racial equality in Monteagle, Tennessee, where, she later said, she “gained strength to persevere in my work for freedom, not just for blacks but for all oppressed people.”

Rosa continued her activism for the duration of her life. In addition to staying active in the civil rights movement, she also served on the board of advocates of Planned Parenthood. She worked diligently in the anti-apartheid movement and co-founded a career counseling center for black youth in Detroit.

Of her work with the NAACP, Rosa once said, “We didn’t seem to have too many successes. It was more a matter of trying to challenge the powers that be, and to let it be known that we did not wish to continue being second-class citizens.”

The life of Rosa Parks should inspire us to persist through our own daunting struggle for justice in the labor movement. Battles lost, as much as those won, helped to build the organization and consciousness essential to the success of the Montgomery bus boycott. Through the fight, losses and victories, the labor movement can create better conditions for organizing.

Rosa’s refusal to give up her seat was just one of many courageous acts committed in the fight for civil rights. Though it is important to honor courageous stances taken by individuals, it is equally important to honor the hard work and commitment necessary to make those stances meaningful. Without the organized effort of all the individuals and groups working together towards the goal of racial equality in Montgomery and throughout the nation, Rosa’s action that night on the bus would have been no more consequential than any of those that came before her.

On the other hand, without individuals willing to take the necessary risks there would have been nothing for those organizations to organize around. Rosa Parks should be remembered not just for that one act of resistance but also for her life, which she committed fully to collective action and fighting injustice.

As 802 members we can learn equally from both aspects of the Montgomery boycott victory. First, we must continue to build the type of organization necessary to take on and win a struggle as massive as the campaign to save live music. This means continually working to organize new members and building coalitions with other unions and organizations.

Just like one person refusing to give up their seat on a bus could never have ended segregation in the south, one person complaining about how bad the virtual orchestra machine is will never be able to save live music. It’s going to take an organized and coordinated effort, and we must be willing to take on a long and protracted battle.

Second, we have to be willing to take the courageous stances that make it possible to build our union into a stronger organization. This means standing up for ourselves on the job, it means organizing our fellow musicians to be stronger more adamant union supporters, and it means taking a stand on the nonunion jobs that many union members work. We must be willing to take the steps necessary to organize the nonunion work that we are already doing. Every job out there that is being done nonunion is weakening our union and therefore making it more difficult for us to take on and win the larger battles.

The need to act with strength as individuals, while building a strong collective voice: this is the lesson for justice that we take from the life of Rosa Parks.

Alan Cage is an organizer in 802’s Organizing Department, helping musicians win union contracts on their jobs.