Rosa Parks was born on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, AL. She died on October 24, 2005, in Detroit, MI. Looking at her life from the outside, I want to say that she lived a rich and full life during her 92 years. But what do I know about her and her life, really? What can anyone know about another person’s life? Probably not all that much. But there are stories worth telling and retelling about her life. …
Rosa Parks came into national public awareness in December 1955 when she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus. Her refusal is credited with sparking the Montgomery bus boycott – a 13 month struggle to desegregate the city buses that ultimately led to a U. S. Supreme Court ruling that public bus segregation is unconstitutional.
And so many stories are nested within that one story.
One story says that Mrs. Parks refused to move because she was feeling too old and too tired.
But, in her biography she said of that day: 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.
Another story portrays Mrs. Parks as an individual pioneer, the first to conceive of the notion of planting herself in a seat reserved for whites, acting on her own whim of frustration.
But historical records show that in March of 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin had in October 1955, 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith were each arrested for refusing to give up their seats to white passengers. But Rosa Parks was not a teenager. Rosa Parks was also not an isolationist. She had been a member of the NAACP since 1943. By 1949 she was the NAACP Youth Council Advisor. In 1954 Mrs. Parks participated in the Highlander Research and Education Center’s social justice leadership training school where Septima Clark became her friend and mentor. By the time of her arrest in 1955, Rosa Parks was well known within her community. She was not only well connected with key community organizations, she was an active member of the Voters League and the secretary of the Montgomery Chapter of the NAACP.
On December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks boarded a city bus in Montgomery Alabama. She sat in the section designated for “colored.” As the bus continued along its route, the white section filled. While Montgomery law indicated that no passenger would be required to move or give up a seat and stand if the bus was crowded and no seat were available, the custom and practice was that bus driver would move the sign indicating the white only section requiring black individuals to move when there were no white-only seats. This was not Mrs. Parks first encounter with discrimination in the face of this law. On other days she had seen buses pass her by. On one day she boarded the bus, paid her fare and the driver told her to enter the bus again from the back door. She exited the bus, but before she could gain access to the rear door the driver drove off, leaving her to walk home in the rain. On December 1, Mrs. Parks boarded the bus, paid her fare, and sat in the colored section. The bus filled, the driver moved the sign. Three other Black passengers got up and moved. Mrs. Parks sat, refused to move or to give up her seat.
When she was interviewed about the incident for Eyes on the Prize, a 1987 public television series on the Civil Rights Movement, Mrs. 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.’ She was arrested. The next evening she was bailed out of jail. Friends from the NAACP and the Women’s Political Council consulted and began to distribute handbills announcing a bus boycott. On Sunday December 4, 1955 plans for the Montgomery Bus Boycott were announced in Black churches in the area and in an article in the Montgomery Advertiser.
On December 5 Mrs. Parks was convicted of disorderly conduct, fined $10 plus $4 in court costs. She appealed her conviction and formally challenged the legality of racial segregation. That day the Women’s Political Council distributed 35,000 copies of the handbill calling for a Bus Boycott. In part the handbill read, “We are…asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial … You can afford to stay out of school 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 the buses Monday.”
It rained that Monday. And the Black community pressed on with the boycott. Some carpooled, some took cabs, most of the 40,000 black commuters walked, some as far as 20 miles. After the success of the one day boycott a group met to discuss further strategies. The Montgomery Improvement Association was formed. At the same time other leaders gathered together with Mrs. Parks to plan their strategies for appealing her case.
The boycott continued for 381 days. The US Supreme Court ruled that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional. Montgomery repealed it law after the Supreme Court decision.
In 1958 in his book Stride Toward Freedom, Martin Luther King Jr. described Rosa Park’s action as the catalyst rather than the cause of the protest. He said: “The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices . . . Actually, no one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, ‘I can take it no longer.'”
After the boycott was ended and the segregation law was repealed, Mrs. Parks continued to be harassed within her home town. She ultimately moved to Detroit to find better work opportunities. Even when victory is won, the struggle is not over. Mrs. Parks continued to work for civil rights until her death in October 2005.
“Rosa sat so Martin could walk. Martin walked so Obama could run. Obama ran so our children could fly.”
And now it remains to us to sit, walk, run and to fly in the footsteps and on the shoulders of the giants who walked together in community before us. Together we too must sit, walk, run and fly in communities for freedom, dignity and justice.