We all know the story of Rosa Parks. Or we think we do. She was the ‘tired’ Alabama seamstress who sparked the Civil Rights Movement by refusing to give up her bus seat for a white man. She was arrested on December 1, 1955 and four days later one of the most successful boycotts of all time was launched when 40,000 black residents refused to ride Montgomery’s buses.
But a new TV One film, Behind the Movement, challenges everything we think we know about one of the most iconic moments in American history. Meta Golding, the actress who portrays the quiet but steely Mrs. Parks, spoke about the role at a screening at the Pan African Film Festival (PAFF) in Los Angeles this week: “I was taught this fable that she was a tired old lady who was too tired to get up out of her seat. Not that she was a seasoned activist.”
That’s what this powerful drama does. It reeducates us about the bus boycott, revealing that it wasn’t simply some spontaneous act, sparked by one woman. It was a moment that the local NAACP activists had been waiting for to challenge the segregation laws of the time and they used the four days between Mrs. Parks’ arrest and her first court appearance on December 5 to organize and mobilize the local black population.
Behind the Movement counts down the days and hours leading up to the boycott. It weaves in the unseen activists whose actions were pivotal to the movement; people whose names we might recognize but whose faces we don’t. It is an ensemble piece with an outstanding cast, which includes Isaiah Washington, Roger Guenveur Smith and Loretta Devine.
One thing that makes it so powerful is how relevant it is – the parallels between what happened in 1955 and what is happening right now. There is a moment in Behind the Movement that is achingly depressing. The scene takes place hours before Mrs. Parks’ arrest when she visits civil rights attorney Fred Gray.
The two men tried for lynching black teen Emmett Till for allegedly whistling at a white woman, had been acquitted by an all-white jury in Mississippi the month before. Mrs. Parks was haunted by the case.
“I don’t understand. How can those monsters go unpunished for his murder?” she says. Later, she adds, “Mr. Gray what is the point of a trial if they can do whatever they want with complete disregard for the law?”
Those words could have been spoken today. Mrs. Parks could have been talking about Travyon Martin, Eric Garner or, ironically, Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man who died while in police custody in 2015.
It was with this mindset that Mrs. Parks – an active member of the local NAACP – refused to give up her bus seat. She chose to stand up to the racist segregation laws by sitting down.
In the film, later that night a meeting takes place at her home. Civil rights activist E.D. Nixon (played by Washington) tells Mrs. Parks’ husband Raymond (Smith) that the time is right to take on the system. His wife wasn’t the first black woman to refuse to give up her seat for a white person. Claudette Colvin, for example, had been arrested for doing the same thing earlier that year, but she was an unwed teen. As Mrs. Parks says in the movie: “We’ve been looking for an upstanding citizen, with a good job from a decent family to represent our cause.”
Within hours of her arrest activist and English professor Jo Ann Robinson (played brilliantly by Devine) is printing out handbills – flyers to give to African Americans urging them to boycott Montgomery’s buses for one day on December 5. Nixon soon enlisted the help of local pastor, a young Martin Luther King Jr. (Shaun Clay) to mobilize the church community to get involved.
The results of their activism – without the advantage of social media, at a time when if a black person was caught with a handbill they could be murdered – was stunning. Behind the Movement’s screenwriter Katrina O’Gilvie said at PAFF: “The one-day bus boycott lasted 381 days, 40,000 passengers a day did not ride [the buses].”
Over two weeks PAFF will show the movie to two groups of about 500 students, but the film is a teachable moment for all of us, of what can be done if we engage. Even if we think we know the story of Rosa Parks, Golding thinks Behind the Movement is a must-see. She says: “I think this is perfect timing to sort of remind ourselves to participate and also to know our own history.”
Golding describes the film as a “playbook” of how to organize a protest. She says: “I think [today] Mrs. Parks would be concerned because it seems that our rights are again in a dubious, vulnerable place.
“If we don’t watch out, if we don’t participate and know the laws, we could find ourselves in a really difficult place.”