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February 4th, 2013
11:56 AM ET

Opinion: On Rosa Parks' 100th birthday, let's remember her courage

Editor's note: Danielle McGuire is the author of "At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance - A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power." She is an assistant professor of history at Wayne State University and a distinguished lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. She lives with her husband and two children in metro Detroit.

By Danielle McGuire, Special to CNN

(CNN) - In the wake of Barack Obama’s second inauguration, it is easy to forget about the daily indignities and terror African-Americans have endured; easy to forget that simply surviving segregation required ordinary people to engage in extraordinary acts of courage every single day.

Like so many African-Americans who came of age during the era of Jim Crow laws, Rosa Parks’ courage was not limited to one day or one act. Parks cultivated courage throughout her life. She called on it during the darkest days of the Depression when African-Americans were targeted for lynching and rape; deployed it throughout the civil rights era when white vigilantes burned crosses and bombed churches to thwart struggles for justice; and armed herself with it to battle inequality and lack of opportunity on the dusty backroads of Alabama and the broad boulevards of Detroit.

Monday, on the 100th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ birth, let us remember how brave she was to continuously defy the segregated system that denied her humanity.

Opinion: It’s time to free Rosa Parks from the bus

In 1943, Rosa Parks joined the local NAACP. In addition to serving as secretary, she also had the job of investigating and documenting acts of racial violence, something that required vast stores of bravery and nerve.

Her investigative work for the NAACP exposed her to the horrific racial and sexual violence whites visited upon blacks who refused to abide by the segregated status quo.

“Things happened,” Parks said, “that most people never heard about.”

In 1944, she helped organize a nationwide campaign to defend Recy Taylor, an African-American woman kidnapped and gang-raped by a group of white men in Abbeville, Alabama.

A few years later, she fought to free Jeremiah Reeves, a black teenager later executed for rape after having a consensual relationship with a white woman.

In 1949 she worked with local activists to defend Gertrude Perkins, a black woman kidnapped and raped by two white Montgomery, Alabama, police officers.

In the early 1950s, she turned her attention to the segregated city buses, where black women were often beaten, harassed or assaulted.

When Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man on December 1, 1955, she clearly knew the dangers she faced by choosing arrest. She knew that some black women in the custody of Southern white policemen disappeared forever. Others were beaten, sexually harassed, and raped. There was no way to be without fear as the police officers drove her to jail.

When Parks called home, her mother immediately asked, “Did they beat you?” That these were her first words speaks volumes about the context and the courage of Parks’ protest.

A few days later, Parks lost her job. Then the harassment and death threats began. After a massive meeting of the White Citizens’ Council on February 10, 1956, where segregationists promised to teach Rosa Parks a “harsh lesson,” she asked the boycott leaders to provide night watchmen at her home.

When vigilantes started bombing black homes, churches and businesses in Montgomery, Parks decided she would rather live somewhere else than die in Alabama. So she moved to Detroit in 1957.

She quickly realized the Motor City was no promised land. Instead of retiring from the nascent civil rights movement, however, she devoted herself to the freedom struggle for the next five decades.

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Rosa Parks' birth, let us honor her not for a single act of courage, but for her determined and spirited commitment to confront and resist injustice wherever and whenever she found it. That she devoted herself, often at considerable risk, to exposing and destroying racial violence and inequality for nearly 70 years makes her all the more astonishing.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Danielle McGuire.

soundoff (50 Responses)
  1. Dan

    This story again?
    Enough already. It's not the 50's anymore

    February 15, 2013 at 9:31 am | Report abuse |
  2. Tom Winnipeg

    talk about a midleading headline !!! It is not her 100th birthday, she died at age 92. Its the 100th anniversary of her birth.

    February 8, 2013 at 11:22 am | Report abuse |
  3. tech1trader

    So here we have a woman peacefully fighting for her equal rights and on the front page of CNN we have Obama sending in drones to kill Americans without due process. And was it last year that Spike Lee tweeted his lynch mob into existence...albeit they targeted the wrong house. Wonder how Ms. Parks would feel about this?

    February 8, 2013 at 9:49 am | Report abuse |
    • larry

      Rosa Parks was a fearless fighter and that makes her a GREAT American! She fought for ideas that were on the right side of history.

      February 8, 2013 at 10:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Julie

      why do people who are so opposed to these anti-racism heros sound like they really need a good education?

      April 7, 2013 at 10:34 am | Report abuse |
  4. Dovid*

    God Bless You, Rosa . I was a little white boy in a small town in Idaho, but you and Muhamad Ali and Martin Lither King Junior were huge, positive forces in my life . I hope you are smiling in Heaven.

    February 8, 2013 at 4:57 am | Report abuse |
  5. Steve

    Were the night watchmen armed?

    February 8, 2013 at 3:17 am | Report abuse |
  6. Jorge

    All this has come from the social envenomation that the antebellum labor structure inflicted on this country. All societies that base their foundations on the blood, sweat and tears of the oppressed or enslaved are destined to thereafter suffer the moral, economic and cultural disease that brings, sometimes for centuries and sometimes fatally. Just take in the examples of the Roman Empire, the Third Reich and Cambodia under Pol Pot. The Confederate States got off easy, considering.

    February 7, 2013 at 9:17 am | Report abuse |
  7. Peter

    Did the media commomerated REGINALD DENNY BIRTHDAY TOO LAST WEEK,I hope so.Google REGINALD DENNY to remind you who he was.

    February 7, 2013 at 7:04 am | Report abuse |
    • Jimbo

      I loved that tape!

      February 8, 2013 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
  8. jonnyg

    Imagine if it was this easy to become a national hero for all people? Just refuse to get off a bus or plane today and see what it gets you.

    February 6, 2013 at 7:39 am | Report abuse |
    • Sariah

      I don't imagine her decision to keep her seat was an easy one. Especially during a time where african americans were falsely accused, beat by the authorities, or some even lynched for demanding equal rights and fair treatment.

      February 8, 2013 at 12:51 am | Report abuse |
  9. Maiden's Little Devil

    God Make Her Rest In Peace... Ok.... Thanks.........

    February 5, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Jen B

    Wow, she's still alive :) Congratulations ma'am, keep on plugging!

    February 5, 2013 at 1:37 am | Report abuse |
    • Zanni

      Lol shes not alive they're just celebrating her legacy.

      February 5, 2013 at 10:44 am | Report abuse |
  11. Dizzyd

    She was very brave. Ppl shouldn't be mistreated based on how they look, no matter what. Society would be a lot better if we treated each other with dignity and respect.

    February 4, 2013 at 8:39 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Glenda

    What she did was beyond brave, to do that in 1955 when segregation ran this country, is amazing. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, was absolutely the right thing to do.

    February 4, 2013 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Big Shiz

    Anyone talking prejudice on Rosa Parks 100th birthday needs to take a look in the mirror and realise where all the same. God bless you Rosa.

    February 4, 2013 at 6:48 pm | Report abuse |
  14. steven

    finally!

    February 4, 2013 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Buzz

    If Rosa had a gun, she would never had so sit at the back of the bus.

    February 4, 2013 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Reality Check

      Guess you don't know enough about Black History to know what would have happened to her if she had a gun on the bus that day. Or was that your poor attempt at being witty?

      February 4, 2013 at 8:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dovid*

      She would have been shot dead and there would have been no advance in the rights we all share. She used courage and determination, not violence. The only purpose of a gun is to kill

      February 8, 2013 at 6:27 am | Report abuse |
  16. Dulcie

    Note – Picture number 6 is certainly not Rosa Parks.

    February 4, 2013 at 6:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • factchecker

      of course it's rosa parks, who are you looking at and why? let us talk about how really blind we've been for a couple hundred years!!!

      February 7, 2013 at 9:14 pm | Report abuse |
  17. I Am God

    Obviously you are racist or prejudicial when you bring in a comment about criminal statistics in an article about Rosa Parks. Get a clue.

    February 4, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • surewhynot

      Outstanding!

      February 4, 2013 at 6:31 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Wolf

    What a wonderful woman! I honor you for your courgae, ad regret I never had the chance to thank you and give you a hug.

    February 4, 2013 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
  19. PublicOutcry

    You simply got that WRONG.There is just no way that there is more black-on-white crime than white-on-black crime. Slavery and Jim Crow killed black people en masse systemically. Open your knowledge to the historically ugly truth.

    February 4, 2013 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
  20. klm808

    Reblogged this on Busy mind.

    February 4, 2013 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
  21. KP

    Who is the lady in photo number 6 because that is not Rosa Parks?

    February 4, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
  22. Eric

    Did you know this staged event was the third time the "civil rights" movement tried to create a public outcry? Are things better today than they were then? Would you as a white person feel safe riding on public transportation in Chicago, Detroit, or Atlanta after dark. Are black run cities like those as clean, safe, and prosperous as they were when whites ran them or are they more like Haiti, Somalia, and Liberia? I don't hate any individual. I simply refuse to ignore the obvious.

    February 4, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • BB

      a more appropriate question is would you as a black person feel safe entering an all white school, an all white work force etc? Are you really comparing chicago and detroit to haiti or somalia? Why are you so concerned with whites being safe? what about minorities safety? and lastly, if you knew anything about the dangers of the big cities you listed in America, you would know its mostly black on black crime. The whites dont need to worry. Lucky them

      February 4, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
      • Eric

        Thanks for proving one of my points. Black on black crime. The cities resources (generated by middle class whites who had to move to the suburbs) are drained dry by the freedom you were given by Rosa.

        February 4, 2013 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • BB

      and those arent "black run cities" they dont have have black politicians running them. So you can stop trying to blame the minority. If you are looking for a blame game look at the government (mostly white) who is controlling the city

      February 4, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
      • Eric

        I think you need to do a little Googling. City councils are majority black and democrat. Have been for years.

        February 4, 2013 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Graham

      The short answer to that question is "yes". Because of Rosa Parks and people like her – black, white, and otherwise – I have opportunities that I would not have had if the status quo were not challenged.

      February 4, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
      • Eric

        Opportunities like police and fire department being forced to hire minorities that failed open book tests for employment. Banks forced to give loans to people they know will default. How it working out for the economy in the long run? Look at the post office. How many minority female supervisors? Its a false middle class generated by federal jobs that is collapsing under its own weight.

        February 4, 2013 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
      • Really?

        Is Eric really trying to blame the failure of the post office on minorities? That ALONE speaks volumes about where him. Additionally, What about the hundreds of thousands of blacks who were equally if not more qualified then their white counterparts but yet were constantly denied?

        February 4, 2013 at 11:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • AreYouStupid

      Yeah.. and if you ask southern confederates whether life is better (for white men) now vs when Slavery was legal... guess what their answer would be! Doesnt make that the right thing though..

      February 4, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sad and Irritated

      It unfortunate to see how people like Eric and AirtoAir feel the need to make comments completely unrelated to the article. The fact is Rosa Parks and so many others made huge strides in changing our society for the better. It is obvious that although things have changed and progressed there are still bigots in this world. We can't ignore that bigots and racist come in every color. It is not simply black and white. I am neither black or white and have experiened racism and violence. I have also seen it against others and yes some of them were white. Sadly there is violence all around us that is related to the color of your skin, religion, sexuality etc. What I hope is that people start focusing on making things better by changing negative behavior. Not sit around whining and making no positive contribution to this world.

      February 4, 2013 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Reality Check

      so essentially you feel that the staged even should have never happened and people should be denied civil rights based on their skin color. Ok... well, it's too late for that.

      February 4, 2013 at 8:22 pm | Report abuse |
  23. BarbaraJEAN MARTIN

    Do unto others as u would have them do 2 u-love thy neighbor as thy self.

    February 4, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
  24. Air2air

    No mention at all that she was beaten almost to death twice – in not one but two home invasion robberies. And no, they weren't white.

    But this being CNN, the article says that during the bus incident "her mother immediately asked, 'Did they beat you?'"

    So this is reporting the news, eh? First, lying by ommission. Second, lying by false implication.

    February 4, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
  25. surewhynot

    Of course the political bloggers come out in a frenzy of hatred. Why can't people comment on the article?

    February 4, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • surewhynot

      See, I didn't want to say it like that. Unfortunately, I have to agree. lol

      February 4, 2013 at 6:29 pm | Report abuse |
  26. surewhynot

    Thank you to all of the people, Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, and all other races of people who stood against mistreatment to pave the way for mine and many other's like me success today.

    February 4, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  27. Feldman Hawkes

    OK, so where's the Google page commemorating it?

    February 4, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • gfgf

      theres already a page commerating the last day of the canadian peny

      February 4, 2013 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
  28. NudeTruth

    Who?

    February 4, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |