If you google the name “Raymond Parks,” you’ll find a lot of information about a daring Georgia hillbilly who served prison time for running moonshine in the 1930s and helped found NASCAR in the 1940s. Unfortunately, Google reveals far less about a black man by the same name, whose famous wife, Rosa Parks, became an iconic civil rights leader during the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama.
Yet Rosa’s husband was daring in a far more significant, far-reaching way than the white-lightning-peddling, white stock car owner who shares his name. Even before he and Rosa married, Raymond Parks worked amid an intricate underground network in Alabama as an activist fighting Jim Crow segregation and racist brutality. In fact, it was Raymond’s influence that led Rosa herself to become immersed in the civil rights movement.
Political scientist and historian Jeane Theoharis has written about the Parks courtship, pointing out that the two met when Raymond was working to free the Scottsboro Boys, a group of nine young African-American men falsely accused in 1931 of raping two white women in north Alabama. Rosa described Raymond as “the first real activist I ever met.” She also said, “Not many men were activists in those days either, because if it was known they were meeting, they would be wiped right out.”
Raymond visited the Scottsboro Boys in jail, taking them food and offering them moral support. He met with fellow activists in secret. According to Theoharis, Raymond said, “I would stand in front of a certain street light and lean over and tie my shoe in a certain way to give a signal as to where we would meet and the date and the time.” Because of the risk to their lives, the Scottsboro activists were known only to each other as “Larry.” Eventually, the police began intimidating those supporting the Scottsboro Boys. Two of Raymond’s fellow activists were killed, and police on motorcycles began riding past the Parks home as a warning. His compassion to the Scottsboro defendants could easily have led to his own lynching.
Sometimes history becomes so mythologized that truth is obscured. We’ve come to understand this about the Founding Fathers, who at one time were treated as demigods (though perhaps the pendulum now has swung too far in the opposite direction, resulting in excessive demonization). This tendency to romanticize the past has also occurred with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Rosa Parks. Often, Rosa Parks’ story is described in cinematic fashion as an organic, spontaneous protest instigated by an unassuming but tired seamstress who took a heroic stand out of the blue one evening.
In truth, while Rosa was certainly courageous, she was not the first black woman to be arrested protesting the segregated Montgomery bus system. Moreover, she gained attention primarily because she and Raymond were at the center of the Montgomery activist network. They also had prominent friends among the white community who were sympathetic to the cause of civil rights, most notably progressive lawyer Clifford Durr and his wife Virginia. Parks had worked as a seamstress for Mrs. Durr, so they no doubt talked often of the racial climate in Montgomery. It was Clifford, along with Montgomery NAACP President E.D. Nixon, who bailed Rosa out of jail after her arrest. The network of Montgomery activists was well-organized, so when the story of Rosa’s arrest made headlines, the boycott gained momentum. It was intricate planning, not emotional spontaneity, that made the boycott successful. The truth about the boycott is far more compelling than the embellished drama.
Rosa, Raymond, and their fellow activists in Montgomery were seeking circumstances to challenge the status quo. As Alabama historian Wayne Flynt points out, the couple were members of the Montgomery NAACP for at least fifteen years before the boycott and ideally suited to challenge segregation statutes. Raymond worked as a barber at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, so he was, as Flynt points out, “immune to job threats.” Indeed, Rosa Parks also worked as a seamstress at Maxwell for a time. She once said, “Maxwell opened my eyes up…It was an alternative reality to the ugly policies of Jim Crow.” Raymond, at least initially, had some protection against financial retaliation, so he and Rosa were logical choices to take point on civil rights.
Beyond the general cause for racial equality, Raymond was heavily involved in the labor movement in Montgomery. At one point, he worked to unionize day laborers in the city. Raymond and Rosa also attended communist party meetings, which, according to Robin Kelley in his 2010 book Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, appealed to blacks because of the party’s rhetoric advocating “racial, economic, and political justice.”
The Communist Party U.S.A played a major role in generating publicity in support of the Scottsboro Boys, so it is understandable that many African-Americans like Raymond Parks embraced the group’s outreach. Still, Raymond’s ties to CPUSA may be the reason he has not received more historical recognition; his story was overshadowed by Cold War politics. As Kelley argues, “Most people think of communists as these terrible, horrendous people.” Rational discussion of communist influence within the U.S. has, historically speaking, been non-existent.
However, the publication of Kelley’s book a few years ago suggests that perhaps it now may be possible to discuss the ties between the civil rights movement and the communist party more objectively and dispassionately, noting both the benefits and drawbacks of the affiliation. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the release of records in the USSR, historians now know that a significant communist influence within the U.S. was not merely a McCarthyite fantasy. At any rate, it’s high time that Raymond Parks’ influence on the civil rights movement be studied more thoroughly.
Although it might not seem evident at first, the black activist Raymond Parks and the white stock car owner Raymond Parks had a few things in common. Both were products of their time. The white Parks who hauled moonshine fought against government-imposed morality and paternalism over alcohol consumption during Depression-era economic hardship. The black Parks, whose legendary wife refused to give up her bus seat, fought against government-imposed racial injustice and complacency. Certainly, the activist Parks faced more menacing threats and danger, but the two men rebelled against an unacceptable status quo.
In contemporary times, we might refer to Rosa and Raymond Parks as a power couple. That said, Raymond Parks should be recognized in his own right for his contributions to achieving racial equality. He was Rosa’s husband—but also so much more.
(Special thanks to Dr. Gordon Pickler, retired Dean of Arts and Sciences and Professor of History, Troy University at Montgomery, for his guidance and assistance with this article.)