Today would have been the 100th birthday of Rosa Parks, Civil Rights heroine. The definitive biography has recently been published: The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, by Jeanne Theoharis, a Brooklyn College political science professor. Charles Blow, writing in the New York Times, provides a summary: “It argues that the romanticized, children’s-book story of a meek seamstress with aching feet who just happened into history in a moment of uncalculated resistance is pure mythology.”
Below is an earlier write-up I posted trying to summarize that fateful day in 1955 when she refused to move her seat on the bus, and what happened in the days after her actions.
On a cool Thursday morning, December 1, 1955, a 42-year-old seamstress named Rosa Parks boarded a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on her way to work at the Montgomery Fair Department Store, about five miles from her apartment complex—just as she did every weekday morning.
At the end of the workday—around 6 PM—she boarded the bus for her return trip home.
Contrary to some perceptions, she was not sitting in the “White’s Only Section,” but was rather in the middle neutral section with its floating cut-off line (indicated by a movable sign), depending on the number of white passengers.
Three stops later, her actions would set in motion what has been called “the greatest nonviolent revolution in American history (one of the greatest in all history).”
Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Taylor Branch picks up the story in the first volume of his magisterial series on America in the King Years. Describing Rosa Parks as “a tireless worker and churchgoer, of working class station and middle-class demeanor,” he writes:
All thirty-six seats of the bush she boarded were soon filled, with twenty-two Negroes seated from the rear and fourteen whites from the front.
Driver J. P. Blake, seeing a white man standing in the front of the bus, called out for the four passengers on the row just behind the whites to stand up and move to the back.
Blake finally had to get out of the driver’s seat to speak more firmly to the four Negroes.
“You better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats,” he said.
At this, three of the Negroes moved to stand in the back of the bus, but Parks responded that she was not in the white section and didn’t think she ought to move. She was in no-man’s-land.
Blake said that the white section was where he said it was, and he was telling Parks that she was in it. As he saw the law, the whole idea of no-man’s-land was to give the driver some discretion to keep the races out of each other’s way. He was doing just that.
When Parks refused again, he advised her that the same city law that allowed him to regulate no-man’s-land also gave him emergency police power to enforce the segregation codes. He would arrest Parks himself if he had to.
Parks replied that he should do what he had to do; she was not moving.
She spoke so softly that Blake would not have been able to hear her above the drone of normal bus noise. But the bus was silent.
Blake notified Parks that she was officially under arrest. She would not move until he returned with the regular Montgomery police.
Here is audio of Mrs. Parks a few months later (April 1956) recounting the story:
Mrs. Parks was not the first to refuse to move, nor the first to be arrested. But leaders like E. D. Nixon needed a “test case” to challenge the system, and Mrs. Parks—with an impeccable reputation and a quiet demeanor—was the ideal candidate. He bailed her out of jail that night.
That evening the idea for a one-day bus boycott was hatched, and with Rosa Parks’s permission Jo Ann Robinson—an Alabama State College professor and head of the Woman’s Political Council—secretly used her school’s mimeograph machine to produce 35,000 handbills calling for a boycott of the Montgomery bus system:
This is for Monday, December 5, 1955
Another woman has been arrested and thrown in jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus for a white person to sit down.
It is the second time since the Claudette Colvin case that a Negro woman has been arrested for the same thing. This has to be stopped.
Negroes have rights too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses, they could not operate. Three-fourths of the riders are Negro, yet we are arrested, or have to stand over empty seats. If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or your daughter, or mother.
This woman’s case will come up on Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don’t ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday. You can afford to stay out of school for one day if you have no other way to go except by bus. You can also afford to stay out of town for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don’t ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off all buses Monday.
The idea of contacting—much less convincing—40,000 people about anything seemed an almost impossible task, especially in pre-social media days. But word quickly spread as the handbills were distributed to students leaving school on Friday, and the local black churches were mobilized as word continued to spread on Sunday.
On Monday morning, December 5, after a brief trial, Mrs. Parks was found guilty and fined $14. Her lawyer appealed to the state court.
The entire city watched in amazement as empty buses like this one rolled along their routes:
That afternoon, at 3 PM, a group of leaders met at Mt. Zion AME Zion Church to discuss extending the boycott beyond that day and to plan a mass gathering that evening at Holt Street Baptist Church, in the working-class district of Montgomery. During that meeting they formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), electing as president the young pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church—Martin Luther King Jr. Just 26 years old, he was 15 months into his first pastorate.
King only had 20 minutes or so to prepare his speech. Well before the proceedings began the spacious church overflowed with several thousand people—in the sanctuary, in the balconies, in the basement, and lining the streets outside to listen via loudspeakers.
And you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.
There comes a time, my friends, when people get tired of being plunged across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair.
There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July and left standing amid the piercing chill of an alpine November.
There comes a time.
Here is the only audio excerpt I’ve been able to locate—a clip that follows shortly after the excerpt above—though the recording isn’t of great quality:
The boycott made a serious economic impact on the city of Montgomery with its near-empty buses, and required extraordinary discipline, organization, and sacrifice among the black residents of Montgomery. It was not without cost to the black citizens of Montgomery. For example, the Kings’s house was bombed and he spent two weeks in jail.
Mother Pollard, an 80-year-old matriarch, was asked at a mass meeting how she was doing, and her answer summed up the feeling of many: “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.”
On November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court upheld a federal district court’s ruling that Alabama’s segregation laws were unconstitutional, thereby allowing black bus passengers to sit wherever they wanted. The boycott officially ended December 20, 1956, having lasted for an amazing 381 days. Through non-violent means a revolution was well underway.