“It was not pre-arranged. It just happened that the driver made a demand and I just didn’t feel like obeying his demand."
— Rosa Parks on not giving up her seat on a bus
Rosa Parks in 1955, with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the background
Today, it will be 60 years since Rosa Parks was first arrested after she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus after a long day at work as a seamstress. Parks was in the "unreserved" section of the bus when the white bus driver, James F. Blake, ordered her to give up her seat to a white man because the white section of the bus was full. Twelve years prior to the 1955 incident, Blake ordered Parks to follow the city's Jim Crowe laws and enter from the back of the bus after she entered from the front and paid her fare. According to LATimes writer Elaine Woo, instead of following Blake's orders and demeaning herself, "Parks got off and waited for the next bus. She swore to herself never to ride with that driver again."
Parks was preoccupied and did not notice Blake was the bus driver on December 1. She was busy thinking of the final arrangements for a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People workshop. Parks was " an active member of the NAACP and a recent graduate of Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, a training ground for civil rights workers where whites served her meals and studied side by side with her as her equal," according to Woo. Parks had already paid her bus fare when she noticed Blake. She sat in the middle of the bus with three other blacks when the white section filled up and one white man was left standing.
Rosa Parks rides on the Montgomery Area Transit System bus on December 1, 1955.
Woo wrote, "Blake told Parks and the three other blacks in the front rows of the black section, "Let me have those front seats." They all balked, at first. Then, after Blake ordered them up again, three complied. Parks refused to budge. The only words she spoke were "no" when he asked her if she was going to stand up, and "You may do that" when he said he would have her arrested. The police were summoned, and she was taken away in a squad car."
Rosa Parks, seen here being fingerprinted by police in Alabama in 1956.
In 1900, Montgomery passed a city ordinance to segregate bus passengers by race, and conductors were empowered to assign seats in a way that complied with this regulation. Despite the power of assigning seats, drivers did not have the authority to demand a person to give up their seat. However, drivers began requiring black passengers to move when the white-only seats became full. In Rosa Parks’s autobiography, My Story, she said: “People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Parks was charged with a violation of Chapter 6, Section 11 segregation law of the Montgomery City code, and Edgar Nixon, president of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and leader of the Pullman Porters Union, and her friend Clifford Durr bailed Parks out of jail. After her arrest, Parks became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. On the same day Rosa Parks was arrested, E.D. Nixon began to form plans to organize a boycott of Montgomery's city buses. Members of the African-American community were asked to stay off city buses on Monday, December 5, 1955: the day of Rosa’s trial. Handbills were distributed in primarily black neighborhoods and ads were put in newspapers to spread awareness about the protest.
On the morning of December 5, a gathering was held at the Mt. Zion Church in Montgomery. The meeting consisted of a group of leaders from the African-American community. The Montgomery Improvement Association was formed, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was elected as a minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The MIA believed that Rosa Parks’s case posed an opportunity to create change.
Parks's act of defiance sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted through December 20, 1956. Author Eldridge Cleaver as the moment when "a gear in the machinery shifted," changing race relations in America.
Protestors during the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Photo/CulturalDiplomacy.org)
A boycotter walks during a Memphis Bus Boycott march.
Once the community got news of Parks's arrest, "out of nowhere, it seems, mimeographed leaflets appeared in the Negro community, saying: "... This must be stopped... Every Negro stay off the buses Monday in protest of this arrest and trial...." The word got around amazingly well."1 One day before her trial on December 5, many religious figures endoresed the protest with extreme enthusiasm. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was led by the then relatively unknown minister, Martin Luther King Jr. The boycott lasted 381 days, crippling the bus system as more than 70 percent of riders were black. The first march sparked other towns across the South to hold demonstrations of their own and boycott their city bus systems. In June 1956, King addressed the 47th Annual NAACP Convention in San Francisco, with a speech known as "The Montgomery Story," also the name of a comic book about King, Parks, and the boycott.
On June 5, 1956, a Montgomery federal court ruled that laws requiring racially segregated seating on public trasportation violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Angered by the ruling, the city took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court where they upheld the lower court's decision. On December 21, all Montogmery buses were inegrated.
Video footage of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders on city buses after the Supreme Court banned segregation on any public transportation:
Although most Americans know of Parks's story, she was not actually the first to be arrested for defying the Jim Crowe Laws: at least two other women had been arrested and put in prison for similar reasons. Nine months before Parks was arrested, Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old NAACP member, also refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus in March 1956. Civil rights leaders such a Martin Luther King Jr. and E.D. Nixon knew of Colvin and her civil disobedience. However, because she was pregnant, and unmarried, the two men thought her story was not respectable enough. The Visibility Project reports, "Because [King and Nixon] believed that conservative Black churches wouldn’t rally behind her, civil rights leaders refused to organize a boycott or any kind of action around Colvin. Instead, they waited for an “ideal” representative for their protest." Colvin said, "I knew why they chose Rosa. They thought I would be too militant for them. They wanted someone mild and genteel like Rosa."
Parks was born on February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama. She learned to read from her mother, and then attended segregated school in Pine Level, Alabama. Parks recalled walking to school while watching white children be bussed to their own school. Young Parks was bullied for the color of her skin, and twice arsonists burned a school she attended. Even at a young age, Parks could not ignore the racism surrounding her and her community. At age ten, Parks showed signs of courage she would display thirty-two years later. A young white boy named Franklin began to spout offensive words and threatened to hit Parks. Young Parks, "picked up a brick and dared him to strike. Franklin, she recalled, "thought better of the idea and went away." Parks once speculated that the urge to stand up to oppressors may have come from protecting her little brother from bullies. Whatever the cause, "I do know," she wrote, "that I had a very strong sense of what was fair.""2
Parks married Raymond Parks, a barber from Montgomery, in December 1932. He was already a member of the NAACP, and encouraged his wife to finish her high school degree, which she completed in 1933. At this time, less than seven percent of African Americans had their high school diploma. Ten years later, Rosa Parks became involved in the Civil Rights Movement and joined the Montgomery branch of the NAACP. She was elected secretary, and remained in that position until 1957.
Parks's legacy lives on. In 2000, a library and museum in Montgomery were dedicated to Rosa Parks. The Rosa Parks Museum houses a replica of the bus that sparked the civil rights activists to boycott an important mode of transportation. The library and children's wing not only tell the story of Parks to its hundreds of visitors, but also those of Nixon, Gray, and Colvin. There is a "time travel" machine that transports the visitors from the 1800s to the Jim Crowe era and to 1950s Montgomery.
The replica of the bus in the Rosa Parks Museum.
Rosa Parks remembered by her friends:
Watch the full-length documentary, Rosa Parks, the Quiet Revolutionary:
1. Remembering Rosa Parks on Her 100th Birthday by Debra Bell at US News.
2. She Set Wheels of Justice in Motion by Elaine Woo at LATimes.
Feature Image: A Montgomery Sheriff's Department booking photo of Rosa Parks taken Feb. 22, 1956
Asiya Haouchine is an editorial intern at Warscapes. She is an English and Journalism major at the University of Connecticut.
Megan Krementowski is an editorial intern at Warscapes. She is an English and Journalism major at the University of Connecticut.