The only statue in Grand Rapids that doesn’t feature someone who spent part of their life in this city, is that of Rosa Parks.
The statue is located at the west entrance to a downtown community gathering space, also known as Rosa Parks Circle. The statue of the late civil rights organizer was dedicated in September of 2010 and includes text on three different sides.
The front side includes the following text pictured here on the left. Although the text on the front of the statue is accurate, it doesn’t capture all of what Rosa Parks was about, nor does it provide a more honest historic context of what brought her to Montgomery, Alabama.
According to the groundbreaking research in Danielle McGuire’s book, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape & Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, racial segregation was not the only thing that brought Rosa Parks to Alabama.
A 24 year old black woman named Recy Taylor was raped by a carload of white men in Abbeville, Alabama in 1944. The NAACP got wind of the incident and sent their best investigator, Rosa Parks, to Alabama to interview Recy. What Rosa Parks discovered was that a decade before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Black community was already organized and resisting White Supremacy. The difference was Black people were not just fighting for an end to racial segregation, they were fighting against the sexual violence of White men against Black women.
At the Dark End of the Street makes it clear that in addition to organizing against racial segregation, the black community was responding to the ongoing violence by white men against black women. The police and courts in Alabama did virtually nothing to hold white men accountable for these assaults against black women. Black women were being targeted by white men on the streets in grocery stores and on the buses.
Black people in Montgomery were organizing around these assaults and used a variety of tactics to draw attention to the sexual assault of black women. One action was to hang a banner that read, “The Rapist was White.” It happened to be that the church where the banner was hung was the same church that Dr. King would later be pastor of. A local committee was also formed in response to the rape and this group was so effective in their organizing that they got a Grand Jury hearing and the local Black ministers together for the very first time.
In addition, there were organized campaigns against the bus system, even boycotts, because of the ongoing sexual harassment on the buses in Montgomery. The bulk of the riders were Black women who worked as maids in White homes and could only use bus transportation to get to work.
So when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, it was no surprise that thousands participated, especially women who had been fighting racism and sexism on the buses for over a decade.
During Reconstruction White Supremacists used Sexualized violence as a tool against freed slaves. It was during this time that the White Supremacists used the myth of Black male sexual predators as a way to demonize Black men and maintain power. McGuire states in At the Dark End of the Street, there is an old saying that grew out of the Jim Crow era which said, “The closer a Black man got to the Voting box, the more he looked like a rapist.”
So while it is important that we recognize and honor the role that Rosa Parks played in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, it is equally important that we understand that she was part of the larger Black Freedom struggle that resisted the various ways in which White Supremacy was, and continues to be, manifested throughout the US.
Lastly, there is a statement by Rosa Parks etched on the side of the base of the statue that reads:
We must not merely hear these words as coming from a deeply committed member of the Black Freedom struggle. We must take them seriously and continue to fight for the same kinds of things that Rosa Parks fought for. When she says she wants freedom, equality, justice and prosperity for all people, then we need to simply look around and realize that this vision has yet to be fulfilled in Grand Rapids. The fight for racial justice, economic justice, affordable housing, food justice, environmental justice and gender justice (just to name a few) continues. Let us honor the legacy of Rosa Parks by continuing to be involved in organized resistance.