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Rosa Parks and access to buses: a little-known piece of the story

Rosa Parks, icon of the civil rights movement, has died. The news is full of her passing. Ms. Parks, 92 when she died yesterday, is known far and wide as the African-American woman who refused to give up her seat to move to the "colored" section in the back of a Montgomery, Alabama public bus. She was arrested, sparking the Montgomery bus boycott, which many see as the first time the civil rights movement for African Americans (who we then called "Negroes") really took hold in the public consciousness. Oddly enough, I mentioned the Montgomery bus boycott in my blog entry yesterday.

The civil rights movement was not new then -- it was just then that it began to gain real national attention and got fixed in folks' minds.

Rosa Parks' act too got fixed in people's minds. Less well known is the fact that Mrs. Parks did not just "happen" to be tired that day -- her act of civil disobedience had been carefully planned. She was seen as the ideal person to be arrested for the desegregation case that civil rights legal organizers had wanted to bring for a while. Parks was an organizer herself.

You'll be hearing all about this, I'm sure, in the many accounts that will now come in the wake of her passing. Go to google news if you want to find out more about this aspect of Mrs. Parks's action.

I recall a different Rosa Parks. This Rosa Parks, in Detroit where she lived in the later years of her life, was contacted by ADAPT when they were in full flush of their national fight to ride the public's buses. It was 1986 and ADAPT, as was the group's practice, had come to Detroit to hassle the American Public Transit Association, which was holding its big trade convention there.

ADAPT had asked Rosa Parks to lead their parade through downtown Detroit. For years ADAPT activists had been using Rosa Parks as their icon as well -- often appearing at protests with name tags reading "My name is Rosa Parks" -- trying to make the public connect their protest with the civil rights movement. "A civil rights movement was born when people refused to ride at the back of the bus. We can't even get on the bus," was an often-quoted soundbite from ADAPT in those days.

Rosa Parks failed to appear at ADAPT's press conference and march October 5.

In a letter to ADAPT two days before the march, Parks cited "the traumatic manner in which you choose to dramatize disabled Americans' lack of access to public transit" as her reason for backing out. She didn't want to "embarrass the city's guest and cripple the city's present transportation system," she said. (From the Advocado Press book To Ride The Public's Buses.)

CBS News's Ed Bradley disputed that Mrs. Parks had ever promised to appear.

The whole thing was peculiar. But it has stuck with me all these years, and when I think of Rosa Parks, that, mostly, is what I remember.


It's my impression that late in life, Parks' public appearances were increasingly "handled" by her advisors. She left public life entirely by the end of the 1990s, when progressing dementia had made it too difficult for her; and there was some impropriety in the handling of her accounts after she had turned them over to others' care. A guardian was appointed last year to oversee her financial affairs. I don't know what the state of things was in 1986, but maybe some of the "peculiarity" was a result of misguided advice or muddled communications from her associates?

Wow. I was aware of her previous activism, but didn't know about the disability access bashing. That's too bad.

I wonder if she felt that her name or image was exploited by the disability rights activists? Or if she was offended by the comparison of the civil rights movement with the disability rights movement? It reminds me of how the black community sometimes gets angry about the gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender community comparing their struggle for equality to theirs. I don't know if these groups really want exclusive ownership of their image or if they are really just discriminatory against these other groups. In any case, I think it's lousy. I guess we just have to have our own damn movement and let it stand alone for what it is.

Penny, I was wondering the same thing. In her later years, she sued some rap group for using her name in a song. She really was too out of it to understand or probably care about it, though - all the news articles were painting it as a story of her family taking advantage of her for financial gain. As I recall it wasn't a negative song either.

I've mentioned the somewhat veiled attacks on nonwhite Americans that appear so often on disability blogs to you before, and here's another.

Some years ago, I was an observer of a disability chat in which most of the group had mobility problems, including amputations and paralysis. They were the most viciously racist people I've ever encountered anywhere, including when I was on a legal team that represented the Ku Klux Klan in law school. The participants in the disability chat spent a significant amount of their time sneering at nonwhites, including expressing desires to do violence. Fortunately, most of them could not hold a gun, though. Perhaps the hostility toward people of color many disabled whites apparently feel is a form of psychological projection. Since nonwhites have been acceptable scapegoats for so long, it may feel like the 'natural' thing, with reasoning like 'I may not be able to wipe my own ass, but at least I'm not a n------.' (That's a paraphase from a case involving a paralyzed white man convicted of hate crimes against a black neighbor.)

As for Mrs. Parks, it was her decision whether she wanted to participate in a disability protest or not. Why do you think that disability movement advocates should have been able to order her to participate? It is not as if she was a slave, after all.

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