22 pages 44 minutes read

Nikki Giovanni

Rosa Parks

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2002

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Summary and Study Guide


Nikki Giovanni’s “Rosa Parks,” part of her 2002 collection Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea, is an important poem written by one of the most accomplished, celebrated, and recognizable living poets in the United States.

“Rosa Parks,” named for famed the civil rights icon, takes readers through the creation of the first all-Black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), in 1925. The porters’ union was an important precursor to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s; its formation becomes a refrain that organizes and propels the verse. The poem is also inspired by progress and setbacks experienced during the civil rights movement, including Thurgood Marshall’s Supreme Court victory in Brown v. Board of Education, the vicious racially motivated murder of fourteen-year-old Emmet Till, and Parks’s brave decision to take a stand against segregation while riding a Montgomery city bus.

Giovanni’s poem is an extended metaphor that compares the civil rights movement to a train. Like a train, the movement has many interlocking and interdependent parts; requires many people to start, propel, and steer it; transports many people along with it; and has the ability to travel long distances.

Poet Biography

Nikki Giovanni was born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni Jr. in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1973, and was nicknamed “Nikki” by her older sister. Giovanni grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, but she also lived with her grandparents in Knoxville when she was a teenager.

Giovanni earned her BA from Fisk University, a historically Black institution (HBCU). There, she reestablished the Fisk chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an important group in the civil rights movement. As part of the Black Arts Movement, Giovanni organized the first Black Arts Festival in Cincinnati, and edited the Black art journal Conversation. She attended graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.

Giovanni published her first two books of poetry, Black Feeling, Black Talk and Black Judgement, in 1968. Since then, in addition to numerous collections of poetry, Giovanni is the author of 12 children’s books, eight nonfiction books, ten spoken word albums, and was featured in a presidential campaign ad for Joe Biden in 2020.

Giovanni has won three NAACP Image Awards for Literature, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Langston Hughes award for Distinguished Contributions to Arts and Letters, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Dedication and Commitment to Service, and many other honors. She has received numerous honorary degrees from universities across the United States; been named Woman of the Year by Essence, Ebony, Mademoiselle, and Ladies Home Journal; and one of her spoken word albums was nominated for a Grammy Award. Giovanni was also the first recipient of the Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award.

Currently, Giovanni is a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech and one of the most celebrated living poets in the United States.

Poem Text

Giovanni, Nikki. “Rosa Parks.” 2002. Poetry Foundation.


“Rosa Parks” is, of course, named for Rosa Parks, the civil rights icon, but it also celebrates many other people involved in the civil rights movement. Therefore, knowing this history is important to understanding the poem on a summary level.

Giovanni begins the poem: “This is for the Pullman Porters” (Lines 1-2). The Pullman porters were Black men who worked as valets on passenger trains. First hired just after the Civil War by Chicago railway magnate George Pullman to staff luxury sleeping cars, many of these early porters were ex-slaves. The porters eventually created the first all-Black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP)—this is what Giovanni is referring to when she writes that the porters “organized when people said / they couldn’t” (Lines 1-2). Though they were hired to be servants, the Pullman porters were much more than just that:

From the beginning, porters had served as change agents for their communities, carrying new musical forms (jazz and the blues, for example) and new radical ideas from urban centers to rural areas, and from North to South.” (Editors. “Pullman Porters.” History.com)

The Pullman porters’ role as change agents prompts the poem to describe the porters bringing important Northern newspapers “the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago / Defender to the Black Americans in the South” (Lines 2-3).

The poem next describes a series of interlocking events:

. . . This is for the Pullman Porters who
helped Thurgood Marshall go south and come back north to fight
the fight that resulted in Brown v. Board of Education because
even though Kansas is west and even though Topeka is the birth-
place of Gwendolyn Brooks, who wrote the powerful “The
Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock,” it was the
Pullman Porters who whispered to the traveling men both
the Blues Men and the “Race” Men so that they both would
know what was going on. . . . (Lines 4-12)

Thurgood Marshall, the son of a porter, became an important civil rights lawyer who tired and won the landmark civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education; he eventually became the first Black justice of the US Supreme Court. In Brown v. Board of Education, Oliver Brown, a Black parent, filed suit against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, after his daughter was denied entry to the district’s all-white elementary schools. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against racially segregated schools, famously declaring that “separate is inherently unequal.” This decision made school segregation illegal across the United States. In her poem “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock,” renowned American poet Gwendolyn Brooks described a Chicago reporter investigating the lynching of a Black man that took place shortly after the Brown decision.

Giovanni continues that the Pullman Porters pretended to be happy while serving white people on train cars, but were in fact happy when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously to outlaw school segregation (Lines 12-16).

Lines 16-37 describe the porters’ connection to another important figure in the Civil Rights Movement: Emmett Till. Till was a young Black teenager from Chicago. In the summer of 1955, Till was visiting family in Money, Mississippi, when he was accused of flirting with a white woman while shopping at a grocery store. The woman’s husband and his brother kidnapped Till, viciously tortured him, and then murdered him. At trial, an all-white jury acquitted Till’s killers.

On lines 16-17, Giovanni imagines how the Pullman porters “smiled” and “welcomed” Till onto their train, observing Till’s “slight limp” that he hid with a stylized walk and his “stutter” (Lines 18-19). The porters would have understood why Till’s mom was sending him away while school was out: “Fourteen-year-old Black boys with limps / and stutters are apt to try to prove themselves in dangerous ways” (19-22). The porters “looked over” Till “while / the train rolled the reverse of the Blues Highway from Chicago to / St. Louis to Memphis to Mississippi” (Lines 24-26), keeping the boy safe for the time being.

Giovanni briefly imagines a different ending for Till’s life:

. . . [I]f Emmett Till had been able to stay on a train all
summer he would have maybe grown a bit of a paunch, certainly
lost his hair, probably have worn bifocals and bounced his grand-
children on his knee telling them about his summer riding the
rails (Lines 27-31).

Then Giovanni replaces this happier, gentler ending with the truth of what happened to Till:

But he had to get off the train. And ended up in Money,
Mississippi. And was horribly, brutally, inexcusably, and unacceptably murdered (Lines 31-33).

Despite a Mississippi sheriff attempting to have Till’s body “secretly buried,” the Pullman porters transported his body back to Chicago, thus enabling his mother to have an open casket funeral (Lines 33-37). Till’s mother insisted that his funeral be open-casket, so the world could see the brutality inflicted on her son. Tens of thousands of people attended Till’s funeral and images of his young horribly disfigured face were published in Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender newspaper. These images provoked public horror and outrage and helped galvanize the civil rights movement. Giovanni writes that the poem is also “for all the mothers who cried. And this is / for all the people who said Never Again” (Lines 37-38).

Rosa Parks enters the poem at Line 38:

. . . 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
history (Lines 38-41).

Parks was originally from Tuskegee, Alabama, and worked for the NAACP—the organization that planned and executed the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, which Parks precipitated by being the first to refuse to give up her bus seat to a white man on December 1, 1955, just months after Till was murdered. Parks’s single act of defiance initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and many other boycotts and protests across the United States, including a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. These boycotts and protests eventually led to the end of legalized segregation in the United States.

To conclude the poem, Giovanni explains that Parks could not stand the brutal murder of Till, and her outrage prompted her to act—she took a stand against legalized segregation and the unjust treatment of Black Americans by sitting down.