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   Vol. 69/No. 46           November 28, 2005  
Rosa Parks: a working-class militant
Below are major excerpts of a talk by Tom Leonard, a veteran leader of the Socialist Workers Party, at a Militant Labor Forum in Houston on November 4. Subheadings are by the Militant.
Some of you may recall a headline in the October 30 Houston Chronicle that read “Rosa Parks remembered,” followed by the subtitle “The civil rights icon is mourned by thousands in the city where she made history.”

I have no way of knowing how many mourners there are for Rosa Parks, but I suspect there are a lot of others like ourselves who prefer to celebrate the life of this courageous Black woman and daughter of the working people, who dedicated a good part of her life to helping defeat the system of Jim Crow. It was in fact a revolt of revolutionary proportions to fight against the social system of Jim Crow, which was enforced by state laws in the South and was widely practiced in most of the North.

The most truthful and fitting way to look at the life of Rosa Parks is to look at the years she spent working simultaneously as a secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and also secretary for the Montgomery division of the International Union of Sleeping Car Porters. It’s not surprising that Sleeping Car Porters union members—nationwide—threw themselves into the struggles of the civil rights movement, especially the Montgomery Bus Boycott. To my knowledge it was the only union to do so at the time.  
1956 Militant Labor Forum
Not long after the Montgomery Bus Boycott struggle got underway in 1955, I helped build and participate in a Militant Labor Forum in New York City. The forum’s program was to help launch a material aid support campaign for the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott that was in full swing but badly in need of more help at the time. That’s where I got my first taste of the boycott and its origins and the decisive role played by Rosa Parks in getting it off the ground.

It was a very inspiring meeting that occurred near the end of the McCarthyite witch-hunt, which was aimed at weakening the working class. The eruption of the civil rights struggle was a breath of fresh political air after eight years of intense antilabor legal attacks and passage of many antilabor laws like Taft-Hartley by the capitalist government. All these antilabor moves in that epoch of time were initiated by Democratic president Harry Truman when he got Congress to pass the National Security Act in 1947.

The featured speaker at the 1956 forum was E.D. Nixon, who had been a railroad sleeping-car porter for 32 years at the time. He was also president of the Montgomery division of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. But Nixon was more than a union member, he was also a founder of the Montgomery and Alabama chapters of the NAACP and was its president at the time of the boycott. He was also a candidate for public office in Montgomery and lost the election by only 97 votes. He was a genuine political doer and fighter for Black rights and the class rights of working people in general. The strategy he was largely responsible for introducing basically meant violating Jim Crow laws in order to get rid of them. This has some real lessons for trade-union militants looking for answers to government legal attacks today. It’s not surprising his house was one of the first to be bombed as the civil rights movement he helped initiate got under way.

Sharing the platform at the forum with Nixon was Farrell Dobbs, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party. Dobbs had just returned from Montgomery, where he covered the boycott for the Militant. Later, in reporting back his experiences as a reporter, he explained how some of the Black boycott leaders he interviewed were dubious about talking to him at first because they couldn’t see why a white reporter would be visiting Alabama to write about the then basically Black-led political struggle against Jim Crow. But that suspicion turned to friendship as the Militant coverage began to be circulated and Dobbs emerged early on in Montgomery as the one white reporter who wrote the truth about the boycott struggle and the stakes involved.

Dobbs and Nixon had some things in common. Both were fighters for workers rights and trade-union activists. Dobbs was a leader of the Northwest Teamsters union struggles in the 1930s.

Fortunately, the Militant is not the only source of facts about Montgomery. I recently was sent a gift of a book titled Rising from the Rails, a liberal’s account of the history of the Sleeping Car Porters union. The author, Larry Tye, confirms some factual information about E.D. Nixon I’ve mentioned….  
Rosa Parks: a woman of steel
I give this brief background to help counter the distortion of the life of Rosa Parks following her recent death in which she is portrayed as a gentle grandmotherly figure instead of the woman of steel she really was. Rosa Parks was actually one of four Black women arrested for refusing to change their seats on a Montgomery bus in that time period. But she was picked by E.D. Nixon and other Black leaders to focus their support. That’s why it was E.D. who bailed her out of jail after her arrest for violating Jim Crow law.

Rosa was married and she had no children. She supported her invalid mother by sewing, a skill she learned at Miss White’s Industrial School for Girls. Parks was well-known to Nixon from a dozen years managing his NAACP office as well as the Sleeping Car Porters union offices. She was also well prepared for her decision to refuse to give up her seat on the bus, which included attending a two-week course on “radical desegregation.” And in fact Rosa had been ejected from buses on several previous occasions for refusing to move from her seat.

As the bus boycott and support movement got under way, Farrell Dobbs reported on the struggle’s broad working-class base. He pointed out how many of the cab and automobile drivers who transported boycotters to work were veterans of the Korean War able to stand up to the pressure of the long boycott. It was a mass collective effort that eventually forced the bus company to capitulate. One of the first big victories for the renewed civil rights movement. These were the workers who carpooled Black workers to and from their jobs during the long boycott, running their cars, trucks, and Black-operated taxis.

I was a supporter of the boycott, which included efforts by Socialist Workers Party members to get cars, tires, and other auto parts sent to Montgomery, all of which were really needed to maintain the boycott. If you go back to the Militant of that period you will find a picture of Farrell Dobbs getting ready to drive a station wagon to Montgomery that was donated to the boycott from Detroit.

As for E.D. Nixon, he said he raised more than $400,000 in meetings around the country for the same purpose.

And yet today representatives of the capitalist state, which allowed the Jim Crow system to grow and flourish—from the defeat of Reconstruction following the U.S. Civil War until it was overthrown by the rise of the civil rights movement some 70 years later—are now rewriting history to strip the revolutionary content out of Rosa’s lifetime struggle for Black rights and claim her as a beneficial contributor to life under capitalism.

In this regard, I was personally purely disgusted when Condoleezza Rice claimed that Rosa Parks’s contribution to the struggle for civil rights inspired her success as a capitalist politician and U.S. imperialism’s secretary of state. She was echoed in delivering this message by other well-to-do Blacks who are a very small part of the Black population. But there were also a sprinkling of prominent white capitalist politicians who delivered basically the same message while attending services for Rosa Parks who was 92 at the time of her death. Figures like U.S. senator Hillary Rodham Clinton looking for future votes, and her husband Bill Clinton, who masquerades as a champion of Black rights, but who while U.S. president intensified the attacks on the poor and working poor, which came down hardest on Blacks, by pushing for adoption of the 1996 welfare reform bill. These were some of the more dishonest reports about Rosa Parks that make her a weak icon, instead of defending her militant heritage in the struggles of the civil rights movement.

First and foremost, during the early days of struggle she was solidly linked to the emancipation of all Black people, especially the poorest of the poor she came from and was part of, a struggle that is far from completed today, and will never be completed as long as we live under the yoke of capitalist exploitation.

I’ve included some remarks about E.D. Nixon in this talk—including the importance of veterans and experienced union militants—to give you an idea of the kind of fighters Rosa Parks worked with during her active participation in the civil rights movement of the 1950s. It helps tell who she really was.  
A shameful distortion of history
The decision of most of the capitalist press and news media to downplay the courage and determination of Rosa Parks and the other fighters who were predominately working farmers or working people, as she was, is a shameful distortion of history. In fact, those were the very fighters who risked all to help defeat Jim Crow. This is the main reason we should celebrate Rosa’s life.

I’ve included remarks about E.D. Nixon because he was the architect of the Montgomery boycott and responsible for getting Martin Luther King elected to the presidency of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which led the boycott to a successful conclusion.

Union Pullman car porters across the country promoted anti-lynching campaigns, helped plan the first “freedom rides,” and spearheaded the massive 1963 civil rights march on Washington. They put up their money and turned over their union halls for meetings, as well as sharing their experiences in the class struggle, which included strikes against the Pullman Company.

Not many people remember those experiences in the rise of the civil rights struggle, but it’s useful to recall them at special moments in history—like the death of Rosa Parks, who worked for years as a secretary for the Pullman car porters union division in Montgomery.

I think it’s fitting to end my remarks with this quote from E.D., as he was called by his fellow sleeping car porters, because it helps put Rosa Parks’s life in the proper perspective.

Some years after the boycott ended E.D. is quoted as saying, “I was on an airplane coming down from New York some time ago, sitting beside a lady, and she asked me who I was,” Nixon recalled. “I told her. She said, ‘Oh, you’re down in Montgomery. Lord I don’t know what would have happened to the Black people if Rev. King hadn’t went to town.’” I replied, “If Mrs. Parks had got up and given that white man her seat [on the bus], you’d never of heard of Rev. King.”

I think those remarks help place Rosa Parks properly in history.

As for E.D. Nixon, one of my favorite recollections of him…was his willingness to speak at the New York Militant Labor Forum in a period when the impact of the rabidly anticommunist McCarthyite witch-hunt was still being felt.

Thank you!
Related articles:
E.D. Nixon: organizer of Montgomery bus boycott  
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