For the past five years, I have toured the country from coast to coast to catalogue public commemorations of women for my dissertation, “Monumental Women: Gender, Place, and Heroism in American Public Statues 1980-2018.” Mine is the first survey of public portrait statuary dedicated to five diverse, historic women: Sacagawea, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart, and Rosa Parks. These monuments, all erected in the United States since 1980, constitute a canon of notable American women. Narrowing my focus to these five subjects allows me to examine multiple sculptural expressions of each figure, and thereby to demonstrate how different monuments to nationally renowned women reflect the conditions and perceptions of the towns and cities that produced them.
The Center for the Study of Inequalities, Social Justice and Policy’s Pop-Up Grant provided me with crucial resources to complete my research on monuments to Rosa Parks in one of the epicenters of the civil rights movement, Montgomery, Alabama, in order to understand how Parks’ public memory has been situated within the history of the city and the movement at large.
Historians have long argued that Parks’ legacy has been simplistically mythologized as the mother of the civil rights movement when she refused to give up her seat on a public bus on December 1, 1955. Her subsequent arrest on the bus sparked the 382-day-long bus boycott in Montgomery, now regarded as the first large-scale demonstration against racial segregation in the United States. In this story, Parks “single-handedly” sparked the early the civil rights movement through her supposedly unplanned act of defiance. Parks herself recognized the highly limited role she played in public memory, writing in her 1992 autobiography: “Interviewers still only want to talk about that one evening in 1955 when I refused to give up my seat on the bus. Organizations still want to give me awards for that one act more than thirty years ago… I understand that I am a symbol.”
Figure 2: Winifred A. Hawkins, Tribute to Montgomery’s “Foot Soliders” (2007), displayed outside Rosa Parks Museum and Library, Montgomery, AL
However, when I visited Montgomery, I found a varied landscape of commemorations throughout the city, and a much more nuanced story. These pieces define the city’s regard for Parks in a truly detailed manner, portraying her legacy and relationship to the movement as complicated and rich, with intersecting economic, political, social, and aesthetic dimensions. Seeing these monuments in person, which the Center’s grant made possible, was of critical value to my research.
Figure 3: (l) White House of the Confederacy / (r) Alexander Doyle, Confederate Memorial Monument (1886), Montgomery, AL
Montgomery is where six states led by Jefferson Davis announced their secession from the Union, but city has lately attempted to cast off its reputation as the “Cradle of the Confederacy” by embracing its role in the civil rights movement. Celebrating the famed bus boycott and its leaders—like Parks—offered Montgomery an opportunity to reshape its reputation, from a bastion of backward racism into an enlightened center of social progress.
Figure 4: (l) Freedom Rides Museum / (r) Selma to Montgomery Marker, Montgomery, AL
Beginning with Maya Lin’s Civil Rights Memorial and the Memorial Center in 1989, the city inaugurated a host of civil rights commemorations in the last few decades of the twentieth century, including: the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. served as pastor; the Dexter Parsonage Museum; the Freedom Rides Museum; and numerous public plaques marking prominent sites of the movement.
It wasn’t until 2000, when Troy State University opened the Rosa Parks Museum and Library, that Parks was officially honored within the city. The museum, which is located at the site of her bus arrest, commissioned two monuments of Parks for their entrance: a three-panel multi-media installation featuring a bronze bust of Parks by artist Artis Lane; and a full-length figurative statue by Erik Blome.
Figure 6: (l) Artis Lane (2000) / (r) Erik Blome (2000), Rosa Parks Museum and Library, Montgomery, AL
While the sculptures condense the symbolic resonance of Parks into one iconic image, the museum broadens that portrayal. The museum’s mission extends beyond its namesake to interpret materials related to the events and accomplishments of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The museum consciously situates Parks as an activist who existed within the framework of community organizing within the socio-political climate of 1950s Montgomery and the Jim Crow south.
The museum highlights Parks’ work as the secretary for E.D. Nixon, the prominent African American organizer who was president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Notably, the museum also includes photographs of Parks along with fellow activists at the Highlander Folk School, where she was trained in the tactics of nonviolent activism. This image counters the characterization of Parks’ protest as spontaneous.
Parks was also by no means the first black woman who was forcibly removed from a bus for refusing to give up her seat. She followed in the footsteps of many other black women – Geneva Johnson, Viola White, Epsie Worthy, and Claudette Colvin – whose names are largely absent from the history books, even though they each suffered reprisals similar to Parks: arrest, public contempt and even, in some cases, beating. The museum takes care to highlight these women, and the work of other female activists, like Jo Ann Robinson, who were instrumental in organizing the boycott.
Figure 9: MASS Design Group, National Memorial for Peace and Justice (2018), Montgomery, AL
The tapestry of civil rights memory in Montgomery continues to expand, recently with the 2018 opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the first memorial in the United States to honor the thousands of victims of lynching and racial terror, and the accompanying museum, The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.
To complement the large abstract memorial, sponsored by the Equal Justice Initiative and designed by MASS Design Group, the artist Dana King was invited to contribute three bronze figurative statues dedicated to the women who participated in the bus boycott. The unnamed figures represented the hundreds of women who made the boycott successful through their daily acts of protest, but never received the same public recognition as Parks.
While Parks’ mythology may be circumscribed within public memory to the one night on the bus, commemorations of her throughout the city of Montgomery work to situate her within the larger story of the civil rights movement, thus expanding her relevance beyond a static symbol.