The Real Work of Rosa Parks: Not Just Refusing to Move to the Back of the Bus, But Combating Sexual Violence

Black women stand at the intersection of two well-developed ideologies in America, one about women and one about Black people. In 1944, a Black woman organized others in her community to protect and defend Black women and girls against violations of sexual assault in the Jim Crow South. As branch secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, she investigated the acts of rampant sexual violence committed against Black women. She was responsible for collecting testimonies of Black women and girls’ hostile experiences in the workplace, social spaces, and those committed at the dark end of the street.

Her name was Rosa Parks.

For many years, she led local and national coalitions, created national media opportunities, and urged Black women to “speak out” in the struggle against sexual violence. Though her contribution to the progress of Black people is mainly attributed to her refusing to move to the back of the bus, her actual work and its impact on the humanity of Black women and girls in the face of overt sexual violence is not widely discussed.

The reasons for this oversight can be linked to multiple levels of oppression and omissions that are the foundation of racism in America. However, what we discover when we explore the complete history of this Black woman, is that she was a radical Black feminist organizer long before the politic of today recognized the term. Books, like Danielle L. McGuire’s 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, highlight a legacy of Rosa Parks that both acknowledges and documents the violent history Black women suffered at the hands of both Black and white men.

While some may want to dismiss this violence as a thing of the past, the reality is that Black women continue to be victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault in large numbers. In fact, a recent national survey of African Americans’ attitudes toward reproductive health conducted by Belden Russonello Strategists found that 45 percent of African-American women have experienced or know someone who has experienced sexual assault.

The lengthy battle over the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) tells us that we still have a long way to go before policymakers fully acknowledge this problem. The massive push by the public that finally led to its passage, however, gives us hope that the public wants strong prevention measures in place and assistance to all women along the spectrum of femininity, sexual orientation, and gender identity. The passage of VAWA extends federal protection and support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and other historically marginalized communities. National organizations like Black Women’s Blueprint, a civil and human rights organization of women and men, use advocacy, education, and healing to address the historical implications and current concerns specific to the sexual assault of women of African descent.

So as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, let’s hope that we also pay homage to the whole of Rosa Park’s life by doing everything we can, during the next 50 years, to end sexual assault and domestic violence.

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  • Stacie McCall Whitaker

    Incredible! I had no idea that Rosa Parks fought sobtirelessly to protect young black women from violence. I wonder if some part of this omission was, in fact, to gain support for the civil rights movement. By that, I mean, that to ordinary (oppressed) black citizens in America it might have been perceived as more empowering during this time of turbulence to think another ordinary citizen acted so brilliantly and defiantly. I could be way off the mark here, but it seems possible that by portraying her as a simple black woman of the time, average citizens might have related more to her, and therefore felt that they too could take an unwavering stand against oppression. Or may e White America’s plan to simply cast her off as a simple-minded, defiant black woman backfired and actually empowered the black population?

  • Jasmine Burnett

    Hi Stacie, thank you for your interest in the article.

    I came to know the legacy of Rosa Parks upon reading Danielle McGuire’s book, 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. I became disgusted by the details of the insensitivity expressed towards Black women and girls, and disheartened that among the stories of the successes of the Civil Rights movement, Rosa Parks work documenting the stories of white men raping Black women, while at the same time, Black men we’re lynched for “accusations” of raping white women, is so important in acknowledging the “Double Standard” of Black and White womanhood.

    Your speculation about the reason the strategy around how Rosa Parks acts of resistance was used in the bus boycott positioning her as a “a simple black woman of the time,” to “ordinary (oppressed) black citizens,” is endemic of the systems that defined her “simple” and the “ordinary black citizens” oppressed. For me, that’s white supremacy. The bus boycott story is something every American can believe in and not feel guilty about. It allows us to point the finger at a faulty system, instead of pointing the finger at the individuals who cause harm. This doesn’t devalue her act on the bus, but it does de-personalize her as an individual. Her refusal to move to the back of the bus was indeed a measure of heroism, however, for Black women, her true heroics was in the service of protecting and defending Black women and girls from sexual violence across the South.

    The secret that I believe Rosa Parks knew and what Black women still know to this day, is that the only people who are truly going to shift the value meter in this country for Black women’s bodies and lives, is Black women ourselves. This sentiment still holds true which is why on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, and all of the the acts of resistance that led up to this moment and will proceed it, I felt it important to express how much her activism was a Radical Black Feminist act of resistance today. I’m not sure what White America’s plans were or are with Rosa Parks. However, as a Black Queer Feminist woman, I am clear about what her work means to me and how I will continue to honor her legacy.