This Day in History: December 1st- The Back of the Bus

This Day In History: December 1, 1955

RosaparksWhen Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old African American seamstress, climbed aboard a bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955, she had no intention of striking a blow for the civil rights movement. After a long shift at work, Parks just wanted to get home to her family and unwind from her day.

The first ten rows of seats on the bus were reserved for white passengers, so Rosa sat down in the next row. After making several stops, the bus became crowded. The driver told Mrs. Parks and three other black people seated in the same row that they would have to vacate their seats for incoming white passengers boarding the bus.

The three other passengers moved as they were instructed to, but Rosa refused, pointing out she was not occupying a seat reserved solely for whites. The rules were unclear on that issue, but the bus driver, James F. Blake, believed he had the authority to make the call. When Mrs. Parks still quietly, but firmly, refused to move to the back of the bus, he called the police.

Although the incident was obviously not premeditated, Rosa Parks was a member of the NAACP and active in the civil rights movement, so clearly this had some bearing on her actions. She later remembered, “When I made that decision, I knew that I had the strength of my ancestors with me.”

Mrs. Parks was taken into police custody and charged with violating Chapter 6, Section 11 of the segregation law of the Montgomery City code, which was enacted in 1900.

There were others before Rosa Parks who had been prosecuted for disobeying Montgomery’s segregation laws on city buses.  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 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 as 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.

As such, her arrest galvanized the African American community to organize a bus boycott in protest of the discrimination they had endured for far too long.

The young minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King, Jr., first attracted national attention during the 381-day peaceful boycott due to his leadership skills and inspiring oratory. And since African-Americans made up 75 percent of the city’s bus passengers, the boycott made a huge economic and social impact.

After her conviction, Rosa’s lawyer filed an appeal. While it was still being decided, the Supreme Court ruled in another case on June 4, 1956 that the segregation laws were unconstitutional. And with that ruling, the Supreme Court banned segregation on public transportation, and Rosa Parks became forever known as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”

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Bonus Facts:

  • 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.
  • 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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