Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Rosa Parks and Jim Crow Laws in Black Hollywood

Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Jim Crow laws collided in the Hollywood film, The Rosa Parks Story. Using her own memories of the era, Angela Bassett becomes the civil rights icon, Rosa Parks.

Jim Crow Laws Colored Drinking Fountain
Colored & White Signs
All over the Jim Crow South
Born in 1958, Bassett missed the actual Montgomery Bus Boycott by only a couple of years. Unlike Rosa Parks, Angela Bassett missed the bus boycott, but she did not miss the era that marked racial segregation in America. Growing up in the Jim Crow South, she saw signs directing black people where not to enter, where not to drink water and where not to use the restroom.

Rosa Parks Booking Photo, Montgomery Bus Boycott
Rosa Parks

Angela Bassett as Rosa Parks
Angela Bassett
Star and co-producer of The Rosa Parks Story, Angela Bassett was born in New York City's Harlem, New York, and was raised in St. Petersburg, Florida, with her sister by their single mother Betty, who was a social worker. 

Bassett transported the audience to the Jim Crow South, a time and a place in the painful past in American history that should not be forgotten and, as long as the film is available, will not be. Director of The Rosa Parks Story, Julie Dash, said she admired the draft of the screenplay by writer, Paris Qualles, but felt Rosa Parks, who was still alive at the time, should be made more human. "The basic elements of the story were there,” said Dash. “But I think I kind of pushed some elements a bit more. I wanted to make Rosa more memorable, more approachable, more distinctive. I had been heavily influenced by the HBO film, Boycott, directed by Clark Johnson...for the first time I saw Dr. Martin Luther King as a man and not as a martyr. It touched all kinds of emotions. That's what I wanted for Rosa's story."  Dash received an Emmy directorial nomination and became the first black woman nominated for Primetime Movies Made for Television by The Directors Guild of America.

Rosa Parks nor Angela Bassett missed the Woolworth's sit-ins, although Bassett was a small child in 1960, when the Greensboro Four started a nonviolent movement to integrate lunch counters across the Jim Crow South using the nonviolent tactics of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In St. Petersburg where Bassett was raised, there was a strong tradition of racial tension and resistance. dating back to Reconstruction.

1937 Ku Klux Klan, St. Petersburg, Florida
1937 Ku Klux Klan, St. Petersburg, Florida
In 1937, the St. Petersburg NAACP pushed for voting rights and, in retaliation, Klansmen marched in black neighborhoods to frighten voters away from polls. Threats did not stop black voters. NAACP efforts ended Jim Crow education, employment, public facilities and broadened economic opportunity. 

In the late 1950s when Angela Bassett was born and Rosa Parks was becoming an icon, the Civil Rights Movement was in formation with the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955-56, and the civil rights leadership role of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., clearly in focus.

 Rosa Parks' education consisted of rural schools until age eleven when her mother Leona arranged for her to attend the private Quaker-operated Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, instead of the inferior public school established for African American students. Then, for secondary education, Parks went to a division of Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes. Parks had to leave school when her mother and grandmother became ill. In 1932 after marrying Raymond, Rosa Parks was encouraged by her new husband to go back and finish school, which she did. Although Raymond Parks was an articulate business leader and social activist, his education had been limited by segregation.

Rosa Parks developed an active role in civil rights, especially when those rights had to do with black women being abused by white men. According to Alisha Tillery, a freelance writer living and working in Memphis, Tennessee, there is a great deal we have not been told about Rosa Parks. Tillery covers some of the untold story of Rosa Parks in her article, African American Heroes: Are We Being Told the Whole Story?

The lives of Rosa Parks and Angela Bassett converged in the television movie, The Rosa Parks Story, in which the events of the Montgomery Bus Boycott are chronicled, along with a sensitive handling of Parks' personal life and political activities, and roles of Rev. E. B. Nixon, A. Philip Randolf and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., are examined. The striking similarities in the lives of these two pioneering women—Rosa Parks and Angela Bassett--cannot be ignored. When Rosa Parks’ parents, James, a carpenter, and Leona McCauley, a teacher, separated, Leona moved with her children, Rosa and Sylvester, to her parent's farm near Tuskegee, Alabama.

Like Parks' mother, Bassett's mother insisted on education. In eleventh grade, Angela went to Washington and saw James Earl Jones at the Kennedy Center in John Steinbeck's  Of Mice and Men. From then on, she was hooked on the theater. As acting became her passion, she was in several St. Petersburg productions while in high school. Upon graduation, she accepted a scholarship to Yale University where she received B.A. in African American studies in 1980 and a Master of Fine Arts in Drama in 1983. Like Rosa Parks, Angela Bassett met her husband, Courtney Vance, during her education at Yale School of Drama and has had his encouragement and support throughout her career. The couple wed  in 1997. Vance--actor-producer of film and television--has refused roles of criminals throughout his career.

Courtney Vance, Angela Bassett & James Earl Jones
(l-r) Courtney Vance, Angela Bassett
& James Earl Jones

Bassett was in Hartford Stage Company's Mystery Plays, moved to New York in 1985 and was cast on Broadway in August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. In 1987, James Earl Jones and Courtney Vance teamed up on Broadway in August Wilson’s Fences. Jones won the Best Actor Tony Award. Vance won a Featured Actor nomination. In 1988, Bassett returned to Broadway in August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone. 

The Yale-trained actress, Angela Bassett, who began her career in the 1980s on Broadway, went to Hollywood 1988 and had starring roles in Boyz N the Hood, Malcolm X, Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back. In her breakout portrayal of Tina Turner in the feature film, What's Love Got to Do with It, in 1993, Bassett won an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe, becoming the first African-American to win the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. Bassett received an Emmy nomination for best actress in a miniseries or a movie and won a NAACP Image award for her portrayal of Rosa Parks.

It is difficult not to learn from previous generations if one is exposed to these people or if one has read about them. That's what happened with me through my mother and my grandmother, Bigmama. Just by being around them, I learned what they knew about society and how they felt about it. As hard as they tried to insulate me from the shame of it all, I was aware.

To give you an idea of how children learned by sneaking around listening to grownup conversations, here is an excerpt from my book, Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's:

On Tuesdays, elderly Mr. Watkins came to Candy Hill in his Blue Chevy and brought goods to show to my somewhat rude but unpretentious grandmother. She preferred his ill-fitting matronly line of light cotton print dresses to the slightly nicer ones that she was not allowed to try on downtown. "May as well buy cheap clothes from Mr. Watkins,” I overheard my Bigmama say to Miss Odessa. “Can’t try on those high-priced clothes downtown. Everybody scared some black is going to rub off of you on the clothes and end up on some of them.” They laughed.

“They still don’t seem to know that ain’t how people stay white,” said Miss Odessa, who was about the color of the inside of a buttery pound cake. “You born that way.”

Miss Odessa had no color to rub off, I thought.

“And if you buy something you like and find out the fit is bad when you get it home, you can’t take it back and get you money,” my grandmother said to Miss Odessa. “You’re broke and stuck with something that you will have to give away. May as well buy cheap clothes from Mr. Watkins.”

Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, affected race relations in America and early Hollywood, in that, studios had to change with the new racial climate that had relegated black actors to servants' roles and mirrored pre-civil rights America.

Rosa Parks challenged Jim Crow laws igniting the Montgomery Bus Boycott when she refused to give up her seat to another bus rider. Article includes photographs, newspaper accounts, television newsreels and legal documents.

Woolworth's sit-ins by black and white college students in Greensboro NC between February and July 1960 integrated lunch counters across the nation.Woolworth's sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, now the International Civil Rights Center and Museum memorializes the struggle for equal rights in America that ended segregation in the United States.

Race relations in America and Southern California were changed by 12 African American women who made a difference in Long Beach, featured in historical profiles, BREAKING THROUGH Lighting the Way.

    Bigmama Didn’t Shop  At Woolworth’s  Sunny Nash

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Sunny Nash author of bigmama didn't shop at woolworth's

Sunny Nash is an author, producer, photographer and leading writer on U.S. race relations. 

Sunny Nash writes books, blogs, articles and reviews, and produces media and images on U.S. history and contemporary American topics, ranging from Jim Crow laws to social media networking. Sunny Nash is the author of Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's (Texas A&M University Press), about life with her part-Comanche grandmother during the Civil Rights Movement.

Sunny Nash’s book is recognized by the Association of American University Presses as essential for understanding U.S. race relations. Nash's book is also listed in the Bibliographic Guide for black studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; and recommended for Native American collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida. Nash uses her book to write articles and blogs on race relations in America through topics relating to her life--from music, film, early radio and television, entertainment, social media, Internet technology, publishing, journalism, sports, education, employment, the military, fashion, performing arts, literature, women's issues, adolescence and childhood, equal rights, social and political movements--past and present—to today's post-racism. homepage

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Sunny Nash – Race Relations in America

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