The Anniversary Party
|I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. -- Henry David Thoreau|
Rosa Parks has been in the news a lot lately, first because of her death in October, and now because today marks the 50th anniversary of the day she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Parks' act of civil disobedience will perhaps forever be remembered as the cornerstone of the civil rights movement. Her action will also spur countless others on to protest acts of injustice (like those who protest a certain invasion and occupation fueled by our tax dollars).
I certainly think Parks should be given her due. But I also think it's important to remember that she was not the first black woman in this country to stand up to a white male bus driver. Parks was following in the footsteps of another woman named Lizzie Jennings.
Jennings was a 24-year old schoolteacher living in pre-Civil War New York. At the time, bus transportation in New York consisted of large horse-drawn carriages. African-American New Yorkers, who paid taxes and were allowed to own property, were permitted to ride buses bearing signs that read "Colored Persons Allowed." On all other buses, whip-carrying drivers determined which passengers could and could not ride.
On July 16, 1954, Jennings, on her way to play the organ at the First Colored Congretional Church, attempted to board a bus without the "Colored Persons Allowed" sign.
The New York Tribune, by way of Mickey Z's 50 American Revolutions You're Not Supposed to Know, describes what happened next:
She got upon one of the Company's cars...on the Sabbath, to ride to church. The conductor undertook to get her off, first alleging the car was full; when that was shown to be false, he pretended the other passengers were displeased at her presence; but (when) she insisted on her rights, he took hold of her by force to expel her. She resisted....Jennings, a well connected woman, did not let the matter end there. After a rally at her church the following day, Jennings hired a law firm and took the Third Avenue Railway Company to court.
Represented by Chester A. Arthur (who would go on to be the 21st U.S. President), Jennings won her suit. Judge William Rockwell, in his decision, wrote, "colored persons if sober, well behaved and free from disease, had the same rights as others and could neither be excluded by any rules of the Company, nor by force or violence." Jennings was awarded $247.50 (she had asked for $500 in damages). One day later, the Third Avenue Railway Company ordered its buses to allow African-Americans on their buses. By 1860, all of New York's street and rail cars were desegregated.