Rosa Louise McCauley Parks was the greatest and most distinguished African American Woman Civil Rights Activist in modern times. She is known as “the first lady of civil rights” for her stance on December 1, 1955, when you refused to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery, Alabama city bus. Mrs. Parks was highly respected within the close knit local community. A seamstress by trade and secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP were her passions.
Mrs. Parks remarked that it was the horrifying murder of Emmett Till in August 1955 on her mind that day when she proclaimed to be tired of giving in; many people both black and white were horrified by Till’s brutal murder. On November 27, 1955 only four days before she refused to give up her seat, she attended a mass meeting in Montgomery which focused on Till’s murder, as well as the recent murders of George W. Lee and Lamar Smith. It was this and countless crimes perpetrated by southern whites cause her to say “enough”.
Mrs. Parks, then 42 in 1955, refused to obey the driver of the segregated city bus system who ordered her to give up her seat to make room for a white passenger. Her arrest was the catalyst for a bus boycott that would cripple the city of Montgomery lasting nearly thirteen months. This event lead to what many view as the birth of the modern civil rights movement.
Many believe this act was the first of its kind in the rigidly segregated south, but it was not the first of its kind. In 1946 Irene Morgan, and in 1955 Sarah Louise, won rulings before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Interstate Commerce Commission, respectively, relating to interstate bus travel. Just nine months before Parks refused to give up her seat, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to move from her seat on the same bus system.
Less we forget that, in 1944, athletic star Jackie Robinson took a similar stand in a confrontation with a US Army officer in Texas, refusing to move to the back of a bus. Robinson was brought before a court martial, which acquitted him. The NAACP had accepted and litigated other cases before, such as the case of Irene Morgan ten years earlier that resulted in a victory in the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Interstate Commerce Clause grounds. The difference as it relates to the many individuals whose arrests for civil disobedience was that Mrs. Parks’ actions sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Let’s journey back to a time when Jim Crow was the law in America, black and white people were segregated in virtually every aspect of daily life – not just in the South. Bus and train companies did not provide separate vehicles for the different races but did enforce seating policies that allocated separate sections for blacks and whites. School bus transportation was unavailable in any form for black schoolchildren in the South.
After a day at work at Montgomery Fair department store, Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus at around 6 p.m., Thursday, December 1, 1955, in downtown Montgomery. She paid her fare and sat in an empty seat in the first row of seats reserved for blacks in the “colored” section. Her seat was near the middle of the bus and directly behind the ten seats reserved for white passengers. Initially, she had not noticed that the bus driver was the same man, James F. Blake, who had left her in the rain in 1943. As the bus traveled along its regular route, all of the white-only seats in the bus filled up. The bus reached the third stop in front of the Empire Theater, and several white passengers boarded.
It was shortly after the landmark Plessey v Ferguson case that ushered in “separate but equal” in America when Montgomery passed a city ordinance for the purpose of segregating passengers by race. Conductors were given the power to assign seats to accomplish that purpose; however, no passengers would be required to move or give up their seat and stand if the bus was crowded and no other seats were available. Over time and by custom, however, Montgomery bus drivers had adopted the practice of requiring black riders to move whenever there were no white only seats left.
Years later, in recalling the events of the day, Parks said, “When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.” By Parks’ account, Blake said, “Y’all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.” Three of them complied. Parks said, “The driver wanted us to stand up, the four of us. We didn’t move at the beginning, but he says, ‘Let me have these seats.’ And the other three people moved, but I didn’t.”
The black man sitting next to her gave up his seat. Parks moved, but toward the window seat; she did not get up to move to the newly repositioned colored section. Blake then said, “Why don’t you stand up?” Parks responded, “I don’t think I should have to stand up.” Blake called the police to arrest Parks. When recalling the incident for Eye on the Prize, a 1987 public television series on the Civil Rights Movement, Parks said, “When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ And he said, ‘Well, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to have to call the police and have you arrested.’ I said, ‘You may do that.” He did, and the world changed that moment.
“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.”
Thank you Mrs. Parks for your tenacity and may your heavenly soul Rest In Peace. And that’s my Thought Provoking Perspective…
Just a Season