Don’t Underestimate Rosa Parks

The coverage of her essay on a near-rape misses her powerful political theme of resistance.

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All the attention largely misses the central theme of Rosa Parks’ piece — and the political philosophies at its core. The essay is not about being a victim but highlights the power of protest and self-defense. “We always felt that if you talked violently and said what you would do if they did something to you,” Parks explained in her 1992 autobiography, “that did more good than nonviolence.” This six-page essay expounds on that belief.

The story outline corresponds to Parks’ own history: It is the late spring of 1931 and the narrator is 18, working as a domestic because she could not afford to continue in high school (as was true for Parks). The white man in the story is named “Mr. Charlie” and the black man “Sam” — so even if this is based on a single true story or a composite of experiences, the choice of these names suggests Parks meant the story also as allegory.

That evening, the couple she worked for had gone out, and the narrator (who is unnamed but for this purpose will be called Rosa) was looking after the baby. Having just put the baby down, she welcomed a bit of rest and relaxation before the family came home.  Sam, a black man who also worked at the house, came to the back door and said he had lost his coat. She let him in and went to look for the coat.

Rosa was then greeted by a white neighbor, Mr. Charlie, and realized that the purpose of Sam’s visit was to grant Mr. Charlie access to Rosa. Mr. Charlie poured himself a glass of whiskey and attempted to put his arm around her waist. Rosa recoiled in fear and disgust. Mr. Charlie said not to worry, that he liked her and had money to give her.

The small Rosa was no match for the heavyset Mr. Charlie, and she was trapped. Sam had set her up, and she felt tricked and betrayed by “someone she trusted … stripped naked of every shred of decency … a commodity from Negro to white man.”

She was terrified, and her mind turned to Psalm 27: “The lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” Recalling her great-grandmother’s abuse at the hands of her white master and the oppression of the nine Scottsboro boys who just been convicted on trumped-up rape charges, Rosa found her fear replaced by a “steel determination to stand completely alone against this formidable foe.”

She resolved that she would never “yield to this white man’s bestiality.” He might kill her or rape her, but she vowed to put up a fight. As she kept moving around the living room, trying to stay out of arm’s length, Rosa coolly began haranguing Mr. Charlie about the “white man’s inhuman treatment of the Negro … I asked him if the white woman were not good enough for him, and it was too bad if something was wrong with them.”

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