Nikki Giovanni

Rosa Parks by Nikki Giovanni

‘Rosa Parks’ by Nikki Giovanni is a poem about activism and the importance of remembering important moments in African American history. The poem pays tribute to the heroic actions of the Pullman Porters who spearheaded the civil rights movement and forever changed history for the African American community.

Nikki Graham’s ‘Rosa Parks‘ is an ode to the heroic actions of those involved in the civil rights movement. Specifically, the poem shines a spotlight on the actions of the Pullman Porters, whose involvement in the civil rights movement forever changed history. It was their actions that led to the chain of events that inspired Rosa Parks to refuse to give up her bus seat. This in turn fanned the flames of the civil rights movement and inspired others to stand up against injustice.


Summary

Rosa Parks‘ is a poem about civil rights activism and African American History.

Rosa Parks‘ begins with the narrator stating that this poem is for the “Pullman Porters” who organized and brought important newspapers to Black Americans. The narrator then goes on to describe various important events in African-American history. The narrator praises the brave actions of the Pullman Porters throughout the Civil Rights movement and then ends the poem by discussing Rosa Parks.

The narrator connects all the actions of the Pullman Porters to that fateful moment in history when Rosa Parks decided she had had enough. This then inspired more people to follow her lead, which jump-started a movement that changed all of history. 

You can read the full poem here.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-4

This is for the Pullman Porters who organized when people said

they couldn’t. And carried the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago

Defender to the Black Americans in the South so they would

know they were not alone.

The first few lines of ‘Rosa Parks‘ open with the narrator stating that the poem is in honor of the “Pullman Porters”. The “Pullman Porters” were initially former slaves that were hired to work on the trains and tend to the passenger’s needs. Pullman Porters also played a huge role in the civil rights movement, as they formed the first all black union.

This first passage states that the Pullman Porters “organized when people said they couldn’t”, which references the fact that the Pullman Porters formed the first all-black union. This passage then describes how the Pullman Porters brought newspapers written by African Americans from the North to the Southern states. This is what allowed African Americans from the South to realize that they “were not alone” in their desire for racial justice.

Lines 5-13

This is for the Pullman Porters who

helped Thurgood Marshall go south and come back north to fight

(…)

the Blues Men and the “Race” Men so that they both would

know what was going on.

In the next few lines of the poem, the narrator once again repeats that this poem is “for the Pullman Porters”. This line is repeated frequently throughout the poem, usually as an introduction to another important event that the Pullman Porters took part in. This emphasizes that the intention of the poem is to honor them. This also adds a sense of structure to the poem.

This portion of ‘Rosa Parks‘ discusses how the Pullman Porters played a role in helping Thurgood Marshall fight the famous Brown v. Board of Education case, which resulted in segregated schools being ruled unconstitutional. The Pullman porters were the ones who helped him travel across states to fight the case. The Pullman Porters were also the ones who spread information to other African Americans and kept them in the know.

Lines 14-18

This is for the Pullman Porters who

(…)

rate is inherently unequal.” 

In this next section of ‘Rosa Parks,’ the narrator expresses appreciation for the Pullman Porters who had to hide their true feelings during the civil rights movement. The poem states that they “smiled like they were happy” and “laughed like they were tickled” in front of certain people, which we can assume are the passengers they were serving on the train. The Pullman Porters were also forced to celebrate in silence when the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional in public schools. The poem recognizes that it must have been difficult for them to keep their powerful feelings held in.

Lines 19-26

This is for the Pullman Porters who

smiled and welcomed a fourteen-year-old boy onto their train in

(…)

and stutters are apt to try to prove themselves in dangerous ways

when mothers aren’t around to look after them.

The next few lines of the poem describe how the Pullman Porters welcomed a 14-year-old boy on a train. This 14-year-old boy was Emmett Till, who was murdered in Mississippi as a result of racial discrimination. As described in this passage, Emmet Till left Chicago to stay with his relatives in the south for the summer. The poem also speculates that the Pullman Porters may have noticed Emmett’s stutter and limp and assumed that his mother wanted to send him to visit relatives so he could stay out of mischief.

Lines 27-37

So this is for the

Pullman Porters who looked over that fourteen-year-old while

the train rolled the reverse of the Blues Highway from Chicago to

(…)

rails. But he had to get off the train. And ended up in Money,

Mississippi. And was horribly, brutally, inexcusably, and unac-

ceptably murdered.

In these lines of ‘Rosa Parks,’ the narrator expresses appreciation for the Pullman Porters who watched over Emmet Till while he rode the train to Mississippi. The narrator then speculates that perhaps, had Emmett been able to spend the summer under the watch of the Pullman Porters, he may have not been murdered. This demonstrates that the poem positions the Pullman Porters as “protectors” or guides of the civil rights movement.

Lines 38-43

This is for the Pullman Porters who, when the

sheriff was trying to get the body secretly buried, got Emmett’s

(…)

to my boy. And this is for all the mothers who cried. And this is

for all the people who said Never Again.

The narrator then describes how it was the Pullman Porters who got Emmett Till’s body on a train back home to his mother. This was an important catalyst for the civil rights movement; Emmett Till’s mother was able to bury her son, and she demanded that it be an open casket funeral so that the world could see how her son had been brutalized. This in turn sparked national outcry and frustration, which further fueled the civil rights movement.

Lines 44-57

And this is about Rosa

Parks whose feet were not so tired, it had been, after all, an ordi-

nary day, until the bus driver gave her the opportunity to make

(…)

Parks brought that light of hers to expose the evil of the system,

the sun came and rested on her shoulders bringing the heat and

the light of truth.

This next section of the poem introduces Rosa Parks, and demonstrates how the actions of the Pullman Porters resulted in her choosing to refuse to give up her seat. Rosa Parks did not choose to protest for her own benefit; she was moved by the death of Emmet Till, and could not allow him to die in vain. Her deviance then sparked a “passionate movement” that changed the course of history. 

Lines 58-64

Others would follow Mrs. Parks. Four young

men in Greensboro, North Carolina, would also say No. Great

(…)

was Mrs. Rosa Parks who could not stand that death. And in not

being able to stand it. She sat back down.

These final few lines of ‘Rosa Parks‘ tie together all the events of the poem, and once again prove that it was the actions of the Pullman Porters that inspired Rosa Parks and caused major strides in the civil rights movement. It was the Pullman Porters who brought Emmett’s body home safely; had they not gotten his body on that train, history may have ended up progressing much differently.

Structure and Form

Rosa Parks‘ is not divided into stanzas, and instead is one long wall of text. This makes all the events of the poem feel connected. This is intentional, as the narrator clearly states that all these key events in history build on one another and culminate in Rosa Park refusing to give up her seat. “Rosa Parks” also does not have a set rhyming scheme or meter, making it a “free verse” poem. It is instead written in a more stream-of-consciousness style of writing. However, the poem introduces each new historical event with the line “this is for the Pullman Porters”, which does add structure and a clear narrative to the poem.

Themes

The poem focuses on themes of racial justice and black history. ‘Rosa Parks‘ references many important moments in the history of the civil rights movement. Specifically, the poem honors the heroic action of the “Pullman Porters”, who played an incredibly important role in the civil rights movement. The author wrote this poem to honor them and the hardships they went through.

About Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni is an American poet, teacher, writer, and activist. Known for her long, successful career and various published works, Giovanni’s poetry is well-loved and popular. Her poetry frequently delves into African American history and activism and has inspired both fans of poetry and casual readers alike.

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Christina studied a degree in English Literature with a Minor in Professional Writing at Concordia in Canada. She is deeply passionate about the world of literature, with a particular affinity for poetry.
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