It would be impossible to talk about black history and not talk about the mother of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Louise McCauley Parks was the greatest, most distinguished African American Woman Civil Rights Activist of our time. The woman is known as “the first lady of civil rights” was born February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama to James McCauley and Leona Edwards, her parents, a carpenter and a teacher, respectively. Her ancestry was a mixture of African American, Cherokee-Creek and Scots-Irish, which some say accounts for her fair complexion. In 1932, Rosa married Raymond Parks, a barber from Montgomery, at her mother’s house.
Raymond was a member of the NAACP, at the time they were collecting money to support the Scottsboro Boy, a group of black men falsely accused of raping two white women. After her marriage, at her husband’s urging, she finished her high school studies in 1933 when less than 7% of African Americans had a high school diploma. Despite the Jim Crow laws that made political participation by black people difficult, she succeeded in registering to vote on her third try. It was something in her spirit that was rooted in dignified activism.
At the time, Mrs. Parks was highly respected within the local community, and as in many segregated communities it was close knit and intertwined. She was secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and had recently attended the Highlander Folk School, which was a Tennessee center for workers’ rights and racial equality. Although widely honored in later years for her action, she suffered for it, losing her job as a seamstress in a local department store. Eventually, having to leave Alabama for Detroit Michigan, where she found similar work.
Mrs. Parks remarked that it was the horrifying murder of Emmett Till, in August 1955, in which many people both black and white were moved by the brutal murder, was on her mind that day when she proclaimed to be tired of giving in. On November 27, 1955, only four days before she refused to give up her seat, she had attended a mass meeting in Montgomery which focused on this case as well as the recent murders of George W. Lee and Lamar Smith. All of this and the countless crimes perpetrated by Southern whites cause her to say “enough.”
After leaving work on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Mrs. Parks, then 42, 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 that of Irene Morgan ten years earlier, which 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 and 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 school children in the South.
In Mrs. Parks’ autobiography, she recounts some of her earliest memories, which are of the kindness of white strangers but because of her race made it impossible to ignore racism. When the KKK marched down the street in front of her house, Parks recalls her grandfather guarding the front door with a shotgun. The Montgomery Industrial School, founded and staffed by white northerners for black children, was burned twice by an arsonist, i.e. the Klan, and its faculty was ostracized by the white community.
Before I go any further, on Montgomery buses there was a separation point, the first four rows of bus seats were reserved for white people. Buses had “colored” sections for black people, who made up more than 75% of the bus system’s riders, generally in the rear of the bus. These sections were not fixed in size but were determined by the placement of a movable sign. Black people could sit in the middle rows until the white section was full. Then they had to move to seats in the rear, stand, or, if there was no room, leave the bus.
Black people were not allowed to sit across the aisle from white people. The driver also could move the “colored” section sign, or remove it altogether. If white people were already sitting in the front, black people could board to pay the fare, but then had to disembark and re-enter through the rear door. There were times when the bus departed before the black customers who had paid made it to the back entrance.
Parks recalled going to elementary school in Pine Level, where school buses took white students to their new school, and black students had to walk to theirs: “I’d see the bus pass every day… But to me, that was a way of life; we had no choice but to accept what was the custom. The bus was among the first ways I realized there was a black world and a white world.”
For years, the black community had complained that the situation was unfair, and Parks was no exception: “My resisting being mistreated on the bus did not begin with that particular arrest…I did a lot of walking in Montgomery.” Parks had her first run-in on the public bus on a rainy day in 1943, when the bus driver, James F. Blake, demanded that she get off the bus and reenter through the back door. As she began to exit by the front door, she dropped her purse. Parks sat down for a moment in a seat for white passengers to pick up her purse. The bus driver was enraged and barely let her step off the bus before speeding off. Ironically that fateful day when you refused to give up her seat, it was the same driver who she would encounter.
After a day at work at Montgomery Fair department store, Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus at around six 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, which 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.
So, following standard practice, bus driver Blake noted that the front of the bus was filled with white passengers, and there were two or three men standing, and thus moved the “colored” section sign behind Parks and demanded that four black people give up their seats in the middle section so that the white passengers could sit. 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. And That’s my thought provoking perspective…