Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

History: Rosa Parks Born Today

February 4 is the birthday of Rosa Parks, the civil rights activist remembered for refusing to move to the back of the bus: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, in the name of the desegregating public transit, was organized immediately following her arrest on December 1, 1955.

Born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1913, Parks was a student of non-violent protest, an active member of her local chapter of the NAACP in Montgomery and a great admirer of both Dr. King and Malcolm X; her refusal to move on the bus that day was not part of any kind of group action or occupation—she held her seat on her own steam. And yet far from receiving any heroine’s awards, Parks paid the price for asserting her right to ride: In the immediate aftermath of the desegregation effort, she could no longer find work in Montgomery.  She and her husband Raymond moved north, eventually settling in Detroit where she worked the better part of her life as a secretary for US Representative John Conyers.

Parks would one day receive the highest honors in the land– from the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal (Harry Belafonte was honored in 2013), to the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded to her by President Bill Clinton) and the Congressional Gold Medal.  And if you dared to mess with the Mother of the Modern Day Civil Rights Movement and her legacy in a movie or a song, look out:  Parks was known for slapping down artists with legal actions and launching her own boycotts against them. But there was one song that met Ms. Parks’ high standards: “Sister Rosa,” a tribute to her by New Orleanians the Neville Brothers, appeared on their 1989 album, Yellow Moon.  Produced by Daniel Lanois, and accompanied by The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Brian Eno for the sessions, Yellow Moon is an exceptional record, even by the Nevilles’ own high standard: Produced by Daniel Lanois, the band transforms two Bob Dylan songs (“With God On Our Side,” “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”), the Carter Family classic “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem, “A Change is Gonna Come,” and Link Wray’s “Fire and Brimstone” (title self-explanatory, taken from the guitarist’s obscure and brilliant 1971 album). Standing alongside the Neville Brothers’ bayou-fired originals, “Sister Rosa” is their attempt at rap.

Parks passed in 2005, though matters of her personal estate have not been resolved and her detailed personal archive has not yet found a permanent home.  She would’ve been 101 this year.  For more information on Rosa Parks, visit the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute.

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Filed under: Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, Hip Hop, Malcolm X, Never Forget, Uncategorized, video, , , ,

3 Responses

  1. Jeff Nguyen says:

    Nice tribute to Rosa Parks, Denise. If I had the time and money I would love to make the trek to jazz fest this year in New Orleans. The Neville Brothers would be icing on the cake.

  2. william ashton says:

    Excellent piece on Rosa Parks. I remember when she took umbrage at the “Rosa Parks ” song by Atlanta’s Outkast! I don’t know if she followed Malcolm X before the bus boycott, because Malcolm wasn’t a national figure (even in the black press) until a couple of years later.

    • Thanks, William. I have seen it cited by any number of sources that Ms. Parks was equally interested in Dr. King and Malcolm X (who begun his emergence as a national black leader in the mid-’50s). I didn’t write the book on Parks, but I studied the era closely during my five years of research on Keep on Pushing.

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