On this day in history, 1955, Rosa Parks’ simple act of refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama sparks the Montgomery Bus Boycott which in turn stimulates the Civil Rights Movement. It also vaulted Martin Luther King, Jr. into the national spotlight as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement.
This act is one that almost didn’t happen. When Parks first sat down, she was actually in the “black” section of the bus. However, because the bus was full, the driver moved the sign back that marked where one section began and the other ended to allow more seats for white passengers. People who were black were required to then give up their seats and stand. In the extreme case where there was no more standing room, they were required to get off the bus.
Parks had actually had a problem with this same bus driver, James F. Blake, in 1943. Parks boarded his bus from the front door and paid her fair, but Blake then demanded she get off the bus and use the back door because there were currently white passengers on board. When she turned around to comply, she accidentally dropped her purse and sat down momentarily in one of the seats reserved for white people while she picked it up, which supposedly enraged the driver. When she got off the bus to go re-enter from the rear, as was the standard practice when white people were on board, the bus driver closed the doors and sped off, leaving her in the rain.
Twelve years later, when she was asked by Blake to move, along with three other black people, those three complied but she refused, though she didn’t keep the same seat. Rather, she moved and sat in the now vacant window seat, to allow the white passengers to sit down without having to move past her.
Parks did not do this because she was tired from working all day, as many people say. From her own account:
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.
Blake subsequently called the police and had Parks arrested for violating Chapter 6, Section 11 of the segregation law of the Montgomery City code, which was enacted in 1900. She was later tried and convicted and fined $10, plus $4 for court costs. In subsequent years, Blake defended his actions stating: “I wasn’t trying to do anything to that Parks woman except do my job. She was in violation of the city codes, so what was I supposed to do? That damn bus was full and she wouldn’t move back. I had my orders.”
Many others had committed similar acts before her. For instance, nine months before in Montgomery Alabama a 15 year old girl, Claudette Colvin, did the exact same thing and was arrested and convicted. However, Parks’ case presented a better opportunity to publicly challenge the Montgomery City segregation code, because the 15 year old girl was pregnant out of wed lock and had supposedly created a disturbance when arrested; so her case was deemed unsuitable to be the “face” of the challenge of the law with the media, though it was argued before the Supreme Court as well Parks’ case. Parks, on the other hand, had gone quietly; was married; had a job; was educated; had a clean record; was politically active; was the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP; and was respected around town, even by many white people.
What followed was the famed Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was originally intended to only last a little while, but ended up lasting 381 days. During that span, nearly all black people stopped riding the bus, which took away about 75% of the bus transit systems passengers and revenue. The Boycott finally ended when the Supreme Court declared that the Alabama and Montgomery bus segregation laws were unconstitutional.
- The first known case of a black person refusing to give up their seat on a public transportation vehicle actually happened nearly 100 years before Parks when Elizabeth Jennings Graham was ordered off a horse drawn streetcar. She refused to get off and so was violently removed with the help of the police. Her story was nationally publicized, including by Frederick Douglas (If you haven’t read his autobiography, you really should. It’s phenomenal). Jennings eventually sued the driver and the company who owned the car. She won the suit and was awarded $225 (around $7000 today). Further, the Judge declared: “Colored persons if sober, well behaved, and free from disease, have the same rights as others and could neither be excluded by any rules of the Company, nor by force or violence.” This, along with a few other cases after her where people were similarly treated and won their cases, eventually resulted in the New York public transit system being officially desegregated in 1861.
- Another significant case was that of Homer Plessy in 1892, which didn’t turn out so well and had a severely negative impact on civil rights for black people for quite some time. Plessy was recruited to violate the Louisiana laws on separate train cars for white and black passengers. In this case, the railroad company was actually on Plessy’s side as keeping separate cars resulted in them needing more cars per train, but they were still required to enforce the law. Plessy was specifically chosen because he was nearly white in skin color and so it was thought he’d make a good public face for the case. Eventually, the Supreme Court made their famous ruling in the case of Plessy vs Ferguson in 1896 against Plessy with the infamous “separate, but equal” ruling.
- In 1944, 27 year old Irene Morgan also refused to give up her seat to a white person on an interstate Greyhound bus. Unlike Parks, though, Morgan didn’t go quietly. When they tried to arrest her, she tore up the arrest warrant, then kicked the sheriff in his family jewels and subsequently attacked the deputy who dragged her off the bus. Two years later, the Supreme Court ruled in her favor and stated that the Virginia state law that segregated interstate buses was unconstitutional as it violated the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
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