The History Cat Classroom
Rosa Parks Sits for Justice
At 6:00 p.m. on the evening of December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks ended her shift as a seamstress at the Montgomery Fair department store. She boarded the Cleveland Ave. bus and headed home. But Parks didn’t make it home. Instead, she made history. As you might already know Parks was arrested that night for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. At that time, Montgomery, Alabama was one of the most segregated cities in the South. The city had laws that segregated churches, schools, restaurants, parks, drinking fountains, and even playing a game of checkers was banned between whites and blacks.
But the law that would make the history books was the segregation of buses. Whites were given the front four rows, blacks the rear seats. The middle seats, however, could be taken by anyone so long as a black person did not sit in front or across the aisle from a white person. It’s amazing how much thought and energy segregationists put into trying to keep people apart. A few stops later the bus had filled its seats and the bus driver, James Blake, moved the colored sign one row back.When Blake moved towards Parks’ aisle and demanded their seats three blacks seated in the same row as Parks immediately followed custom and got up without a word. But, Parks stayed where she was. When the bus driver asked her why she didn’t move, Parks replied: “I don’t think I should have to”. Parks knew full well that the Montgomery legal system– the police, the courts, the mayor, the governor, even her employers at the department store–had the upper hand. But Parks was tired of being pushed around.
“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”
For years black people in Montgomery and other southern cities endured a humiliation that cuts to the bone. The humiliation of being treated less than a person in your own country. The bus drivers in Montgomery especially had a nasty reputation of abusing their black customers. They often called them names, hollered, and cursed them for the slightest offense. Rosa Parks recalled one time when she got on the bus in the front to pay her fare she was told that she could not walk down the aisle to the back of the bus. Montgomery also had a law that black passengers couldn’t walk past whites on a bus. After paying her fare she was forced to get back off and enter through the rear door. But before she could re-board the bus driver, none other than James Blake had driven off leaving her standing in the rain and 10 cents shorter.
Claudette Covin, called the first Rosa Parks. Who, only a few months earlier, had also refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott
The boycott officially kicked off on December 5, a typical Monday morning in Montgomery, Alabama, Many thought that the boycott wouldn’t work. One local pastor, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sat with his wife watching out of his living room window to see what would happen. When the first bus rode by King was elated–it was completely empty. Blacks in Montgomery made up 70% of the bus riders because few could afford to own a car. White city leaders were sure the boycott would end in failure. Montgomery was experiencing one of the coldest winters in memory with temperatures dropping below freezing. It was only a matter of days before blacks got tired of walking in the cold and gave in. But that didn’t happen.
In the history books, Rosa Parks is a hero because she stood up to racial injustice. Well, she is a hero. But not just because she refused to give up her seat. She is a hero because she knew all of the terrible consequences that an angry, racist society would throw at her and yet she still refused to give up her seat. True courage always comes at a price. And for the next 381 days Parks, King, and all of the unnamed people who helped keep the boycott alive would make countless personal sacrifices.
Most blacks chose to walk to where they needed to go. Those with cars formed carpools and offered discounted taxi services. Churches were converted into makeshift bus stops. The boycott couldn’t have survived without the dedication of these countless thousands. On their way to wherever they were going blacks often endured insults being hurled at them by angry white drivers. The police ticketed and arrested black taxi and carpool drivers on bogus charges. For example, Martin Luther King was arrested for driving 30 in a 25 MPH zone. The city even tried invoking an obscuring 1921 state law against boycotting to arrest the leaders of the boycott. Parks and King received threatening phone calls on a nightly basis. King had his house bombed. His family was unhurt but it showed that racists were getting desperate. The K.K.K. frequently went through black neighborhoods shouting obscenities and threats. Park’s husband quit his job as a barber after being told he could not talk about his wife. Parks herself was dismissed as from the Montgomery Fair Department Store. Parks insisted this had nothing to do with the boycott. She saw her employer as an honest man.
However, now the Parks family had to survive on whatever Parks could bring in doing odd sewing jobs. Many whites refused to hire her. To make matters worse her landlord informed her that he wouldn’t be renewing her lease. Parks grew deeply in debt and had to rely on the charity of her friends and neighbors. Parks recalled that these were dark times for her family.
Like thousands of African-Americans, this Montgomery woman is hitch-hiking to support the bus boycott.
"I have learned over the years that when one's mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear."
After having their application rejected for the Missouri adopt-a-highway program, the Ku Klux Klan sued and won in federal court, allowing them to erect signs advertising that the klan was the sponsor of that section of I-55. The Missouri found another way of getting back at the klan. In 1994, they renamed I-55 "Rosa Parks Highway". The klan soon dropped out of the program.
A Win For Integration
Throughout 1955-56, the hostility in Montgomery was palpable. The city council refused to give in to the demands of the boycotters. They, after all, were upsetting the balance. After only a few weeks white people all over Montgomery were feeling the impact of the boycott. Blacks had stopped going downtown to shop at white-owned stores. The bus company was hurting. To make ends meet they raised the fare to 45 cents, which enraged white riders.
The situation in Montgomery was gaining international attention. Reporters from all over the country and as far away as Europe were coming to take a look at what was going on down in Alabama. State leaders always tried to maintain that they had good relations with the Negro community. They insisted that it was outside agitators and communists who were stirring up trouble between races. Now the truth was being exposed. In February 1955, the case of Browder vs. Gale was taken to court. Rosa Parks became the face of the movement to end segregation on public transportation but in truth, she was one of four defendants challenging Montgomery’s segregation laws.
Just a few years earlier the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down segregation of public schools in the landmark case of Brown vs Board. The time seemed right for challenging all Jim Crow laws. In 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation on Public transportation was unconstitutional. On December 20, 1956, Parks, King, and other black leaders boarded an integrated bus. Ironically, the driver that day was none other than James Blake. He smiled politely and welcomed them aboard. A reporter was on board to record the historic event.