By Delica Storm
Most accounts of Rosa Parks tell a story that is much more simplistic than the reality of her arrest and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that followed. Many people have been taught that Rosa Parks was a tired African-American seamstress who sat in the white section of a Montgomery bus and refused to give up her seat to a white person. They know that she was arrested for her refusal. Most people are aware that, as a result, African-Americans in Montgomery stopped riding city buses for many months. The real story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is much more complex.
In the 1950’s, the Southern United States had in place numerous Jim Crow laws. In 1863, after the Southern states (the Confederacy) lost the Civil War and slavery was abolished, many white citizens in Southern states wanted to find new ways to establish White supremacy. Southern states started to pass Jim Crow laws, which were laws that required, or at the very least allowed, the segregation of races. One of the first Jim Crow laws was passed in Florida, in 1887. The law required that railways provide separate accommodations on their trains for white and black riders. Homer Plessy, a Caucasian man who was one-eighth black, challenged a similar law that was passed in Louisiana, in the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson. The Supreme Court ruled that the segregation of races was constitutional, as long as the separate accommodations were equal. The precedent of “separate but equal” paved the way for the passing of many more Jim Crow laws. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, nearly all Southern states, including Alabama, required the segregation of all schools, restaurants, transportation systems, and most other facilities. The accommodations may have been separate, but they were certainly not equal.
Montgomery, Alabama, was well known for its harsh bus segregation laws. In Montgomery, it was required that the black passengers sit solely in the back rows and the white passengers sit solely in the front rows of the buses. However, that was not the only way that African-Americans were discriminated against on buses in Alabama. Jo Ann Robinson was an African-American and President of the Women’s Political Council, which was an organization of professional African-American women. In a letter to the mayor of Montgomery, she wrote, “There were several things the Council asked for: 1. A city law that would make it possible for Negroes to sit from back toward front, and Whites from front toward back until all the seats are taken. 2. That Negroes not be asked or forced to pay fare at front and go to the rear of the bus to enter. 3. That buses stop at every corner in residential sections occupied by Negroes as they do in communities where whites reside.” Along with needing to sit at the back of the bus, African-Americans were often required to pay their fare at the front of the bus and then to exit the bus and enter again at the rear. Also, buses would often not stop at every corner of African-American residential sections, although they would do so for white areas of Mongomery. That letter was written on May 21, 1954, well over a year before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. As well, it is also stated in the letter that, “There has been talk…of planning of city-wide boycott of buses.” Civil rights activists had been fighting the bus segregation laws for quite some time, and were even considering a bus boycott. However, before a bus boycott could be planned, there needed to be an event that could inspire people to protest.
On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks boarded a bus. Many people have the misconception that Rosa Parks sat in the white section, but that is not the case. Of the thirty-six seats on the bus, the ten front seats were designated for white people and the back twenty-six were designated for black people. Rosa Parks sat in one of the first dual seats of the black section that was immediately behind the white section. As the bus filled up, all of the seats in the white section became occupied. It is unknown if there were any vacant seats in the black section, but it is known that some white and some black people were standing. In order to accommodate for more of the white passengers, the bus driver asked the African-American passengers in the first row of the black section to give up their seats. Rosa Parks was among this group of passengers. The bus driver did have legal authority to expand the boundaries of the white section if there were not enough seats available for white passengers.
The three other African-American passengers moved back, but Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. The bus driver, J.F. Blake, contacted the police. Officers F.B. Day and D.W. Mixon responded to the complaint and arrested Rosa Parks. In the police report that was filed for her charge, the officers claimed that Rosa Parks was sitting in the white section. Although she was sitting in what was originally the black section, the bus driver extended the white section to Rosa Parks’ row. That meant she was technically sitting in a row assigned for white passengers, putting her in violation of Montgomery’s bus segregation laws. She was found guilty of her violation by the Recorder’s Court of the City of Montgomery, Alabama. She later appealed that court’s decision in the case, Rosa Parks v. City of Montgomery. Her appeal was unsuccessful as the Alabama Court of Appeals chose to uphold her charge.
People may wonder why Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Rosa Parks, in her autobiography, wrote “People always say I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically…No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” Rosa Parks did not refuse to give up her seat because she was a tired old seamstress. She was person who was tired of being treated like a second-class citizen, who decided to stand up for herself. Moreover, Rosa Parks was trained as a civil rights activist at the Highlander Folk School. Virginia Foster Durr, who was a white woman and a supporter of civil rights for African-Americans, wrote in her letter to the director of the Highlander Folk School and his wife, “When she (Rosa Parks) came back she was so happy and felt so liberated. She said the discrimination got worse and worse to bear after having, for the first time in her life, been free of it at Highlander…that had a lot to do with her daring to risk arrest as she is naturally a very quiet person although she has a strong sense of pride.”
When Rosa Parks was at Highlander, she experienced what it would be like if African-Americans and white people were equal and worked together for the greater good. After seeing what a better world it would be if things were like that everywhere, it must have been difficult to go back to being in a place where people were discriminated against just because of the colour of their skin.
The day that Rosa Parks was found as guilty of her charge, December 5, 1955, was the first day of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In protest of the bus segregation laws in Montgomery, Alabama, thousands of African-Americans throughout the city did not ride the Montgomery buses that Monday. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), whose president was the African-American Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, held its first meeting on the evening of the first day of the boycott. The African-American Reverend Ralph Abernathy was also involved with the MIA’s efforts to help lead the protest. In the thesis for his master’s degree, The Natural History of a Social Movement, Abernathy described how, at the first meeting of the MIA, “I was given instructions: one, to call off the protest, or two, if indicated, to continue the protest until the grievances were granted.” Originally, the bus boycott was meant to only be a “one-day protest.” At the first mass meeting of the MIA, they needed to decide whether or not to extend the boycott. The first day was very successful, and there was concern that they might fail if they continued to protest. The association decided to make their decision based on the size of the crowds at the first meeting. When King and Abernathy arrived at the local Baptist church where the meeting was being held, they discovered that seven-thousand people came to a meeting in a church that could not even accommodate one-thousand people. The applause and enthusiasm of the crowd made it easy to decide whether or not to continue the boycott. It was decided and announced at the meeting that the protest would continue.
As well, Rosa Parks was in attendance and made an appearance for the crowd at the first meeting of the MIA. Reverend Abernathy also stated in his master’s thesis, “Mrs. Rosa Parks was presented to the mass meeting because we wanted her to become symbolic of our protest movement.” In order to help make the bus boycott a success, they needed a symbol to inspire others to take a stand. Rosa Parks may not have been the first person who refused to give up their seat, but she was carefully chosen to represent the movement. On March 2, 1955, an African-American girl, named Claudette Colvin, also refused to give up her seat to a white person. However, she was pregnant out of wedlock and only fifteen years old at the time, which are possible reasons why she was not used as a symbol of the movement.
Rosa Parks was perhaps the best person they could have chosen to be symbolic of the bus boycott. When she refused to give up her seat, she was forty-two years old. She was also happily married to her husband Raymond Parks. Moreover, she had quite a bit of prior experience in civil rights activism. Rosa Parks was trained at the Highlander Folk School, as previously discussed, and she was also the secretary to the President of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).
The bus boycott was very successful. The initial “one-day protest” lasted for over a year, continuing from December 5, 1955 until December 20, 1956. Bayard Rustin was an African-American civil activist, who advised Dr. King and supported the bus boycott. He wrote in his diary on February 24, 1956, “42 000 Negroes have not ridden the buses since December 5.” Bayard Rustin also discussed that, initially, African-Americans were transported to work by black taxi drivers. However, on the second day of the boycott, December 6, 1955, police began to arrest black taxi drivers for “conspiring to destroy the bus company.” As a result, African-Americans needed to find new alternative means of travel. Most black people participating in the boycott relied on carpooling. They would also, in some cases, hitch-hike. If they were a servant, the white housewives who employed them might have driven them. Many others walked. Rufus Lewis, who was the director of the carpool system, introduced Bayard Rustin to a man who walked seven miles every day and a man who walked fourteen miles every day, since the boycott began. The dedication and sacrifices that people made during the bus boycott show how much African-Americans wanted things to change.
The majority of bus riders were African-American, which is why they usually had twenty-six seats assigned to them, whereas white people only had ten seats assigned for them. Because most bus riders were black, the bus boycott put great strain on the bus system of Montgomery. The pressure on the bus system encouraged the federal district court of Alabama to rule that the bus segregation laws in Montgomery violated the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed the equality of all men before the law, and was, thus, unconstitutional. The bus boycott still continued, though, as an appeal maintained the segregation laws after this court decision. Finally, on November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court decided to uphold the district court’s ruling. Bus segregation officially ended in Montgomery on December 20, 1956.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott certainly shows what can be achieved through non-violent protest. Through daily sacrifices and the respectful refusal of Rosa Parks, African-Americans ended bus segregation without becoming the enemy through violence. This thoughtful and, at points, complicated bus boycott gained momentum from the dream of equality. The Montgomery Bus Boycott did not spontaneously begin because of Rosa Parks, but was being considered throughout years of injustice and discrimination. In conclusion, the Montgomery Bus Boycott is much more complex than commonly thought, and ended in great success.