Rosa Parks, ‘The First Lady of Civil Rights’
“Don’t ride the bus today, don’t ride it for freedom.” This was written on the flyers plastered around the city of Montgomery on December 5, 1955: the day that Rosa Parks would be tried for her crime of refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus.
Rosa Parks (1913-2005) has been called “The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.” In a moment of quiet, dignified courage, Parks moved a generation and a nation to end second class citizenship for African Americans.
Parks was born in Tuskegee, Alabama and was raised on a farm. She grew up in the shadow of Jim Crow, in a time when all aspects of social life were racially segregated by law. Water fountains, city buses, public schools, and many other facilities were separated between blacks and whites. Parks had been riding the city buses for years. Once, in 1943, she entered the bus to pay her fare and then, as required by the bus company, exited and walked around to the rear entrance designated for blacks. But before she could re-board, the bus drove off.
On December 1, 1955, as Parks was riding the bus home, she was asked to give up her seat and move further back in the bus. She was already seated in the “colored” section, but, because more white people had boarded, the “colored” section would need to be moved further back. Parks refused. She was arrested. Recounting the event for a documentary, she described the exchange: “When [the driver] 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.’”
Parks’ courage led to a boycott of the city buses. It was championed by the relatively unknown Reverend of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King, Jr., along with many other civil rights leaders. During the boycott, members of the black community (many of whom would not afford cars), made sacrifices for their rights. Many cab drivers, in solidarity with the boycotters, began charging blacks only 10 cents per ride to assist with the hardships that came with the bus boycott. When the city government announced they would prosecute these cab drivers, leaders began a “private taxi plan” offering coordinated transportation. They risked not only arrest, but police brutality and mob violence.
The boycott was powerful—Montgomery county bus passengers were 75% African American—and it lasted for more than a year: 381 days. In November of 1956 the District Court ruled that segregation on buses was unconstitutional and the boycott officially ended in triumph.