The Lady Said “No”
By Anne Adams
When I was fourteen in 1959, my family traveled cross-country from our home in Ohio. We stopped in Dallas and while there we went ate lunch and went shopping in a downtown Woolworth’s. After lunch when my father indicated he wanted to show me something. He took me downstairs to the basement part of the store and with no comment pointed out what seemed to be a duplicate lunch counter to the one upstairs. The only difference I could see was that the customers were all black or “Negro,” as we said then. After a glance, I resumed my shopping, but only later did I realize that he was showing me racial segregation. Since our small town at that time had almost no black residents it was not an issue there. Yet in places like Dallas, and other southern cities like Montgomery, Alabama it was, and especially on city buses. That is, until in December, 1955 a department store seamstress named Rosa Parks said “no” – and refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus to white riders.
“People always say I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired,” she said later, “But that isn’t true…No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” And because she did, it had immediate national effects. As one source put it: “Parks’ act of defiance became an important symbol of the modern Civil Rights Movement and she became an international icon of resistance to racial segregation.”
The lady Congress later called the “Mother of the Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement” was born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama in February, 1913, the daughter of a carpenter and a teacher. Actually she claimed not just African ancestry but also Cherokee-Creek and her great grandfather was Scots-Irish. At her parents’ separation, Rosa moved with her mother to a community near Montgomery, and she grew up there on a family farm. After learning at home till she was 11, she then attended several schools until she had to drop out to care for family members.
Under the “Jim Crow” laws of the time in the south, blacks and whites occupied totally separate spaces – and different worlds. Public transportation, such as buses and trains did not offer separate vehicles, but instead set up separate seating areas for the races. Of course there were no school buses for black children. Mrs. Parks recalled later that she became quite accustomed to seeing buses carry white children to class – while she walked. “The bus was among the first ways I realized there was a black world and a white world.”
In 1932 Rosa married Raymond Parks, a Montgomery barber and she took a variety of jobs working in domestic service and as a hospital aide. Also, her husband encouraged her to finish her high school education in a time when very few black people achieved this. Raymond was active in the local NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and in late 1943 Rosa joined the Montgomery chapter, becoming secretary to the president, a position she continued till 1957.
About 1944 when she worked at a local air force base she encountered equal accommodations for the first time. Remembering what it was like to ride on an integrated trolley, she later remarked: “You might say Maxwell [the air base] opened my eyes up.” Then when she went to work as a housekeeper and seamstress for a prominent white couple, they encouraged her to continue her education and update her learning experiences.
Racial segregation of buses had long been a public issue and in fact the Interstate Commerce Commission had banned discrimination on interstate buses. However, that did not affect buses that operated within state lines. To challenge that discrepancy in court, civil rights advocates needed to find a plaintiff for a challenge, yet they knew they had to find a person who could project the same right image for their cause. They soon discovered the right person – there within their own organization.
On Montgomery city buses the first four rows were reserved for whites, and the rest of the rows were designated as “colored” – even though blacks made up more than 75% of the ridership. The size of the sections depended on the number of riders of each race and often the driver used a “colored” placard to indicate the first row of the black section. The procedure was that as more white riders boarded and needed more than the first four rows, black riders had to move further back or even stand or sometimes leave the bus. When a black rider boarded to find the whites occupied most of the front seats, he or she had to get off, and come back on through the rear door. However, once they got off, the driver might pull away and leave them, even though they’d paid their fare.
Understandably, the black community decried the unfairness of the system, but there seemed to be no recourse. Until December 1, 1955.
About 6 p.m. on that day Mrs. Parks left her job as a seamstress in a downtown store, and boarded the bus, sitting in an empty seat in the first row of the “colored” section behind the area reserved for white riders. However, as more whites got on, the driver moved the “colored” sign to the row behind Mrs. Parks. He demanded she and four other blacks give up their seats to whites, and move toward the rear. As Mrs. Parks said later: “When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.”
Though three of the other black riders complied with the order, Mrs. Parks did not move. Later she recounted what happened: “When he 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.’”
A police officer arrived to arrest her and charge her with a violation of the city’s segregation law. Supporters, including the NAACP president, and her former employer, a local white attorney, arranged for her to bail out that evening. Then the civil rights advocates decided to be proactive and stage a bus boycott by black riders. They formed the Montgomery Improvement Association, and as their president elected a newcomer to Montgomery, the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Then on December 5 as Mrs. Parks was tried on the charges of disorderly conduct and found guilty, and fined $10, the bus boycott began. From the first day, black citizens avoided the bus system. Some rode in black-owned cabs that charged the same as the bus fare, some carpooled, but many walked, sometimes long distances. As the boycott continued, city buses remained idle and company profits dwindled. Also, the boycott brought repercussions as black churches were bombed and burned, as were the homes of many supporters of both races. As it turned out, Mrs. Parks’ case could not be the basis of a federal suit against bus segregation because hers was a criminal case and a ruling in her favor would only negate her conviction and not affect the segregation laws. However, there were other plaintiffs available and in November, 1956 in response to a challenge, the U.S. Supreme Court decreed intrastate bus segregation to be unconstitutional. The Montgomery bus boycott ended the next day.
Though Mrs. Parks had become a national figure, she still encountered difficulties. After she was dismissed from her position at the store, her husband also left his job and in 1957 they moved to Virginia and later to Detroit where she again worked as a seamstress. Then in 1965 she joined the staff of a local black congressman and worked there till she retired in 1988.
Mrs. Parks died in October, 2005 a year after being diagnosed with dementia, and in her memory the cities of Montgomery and Detroit arranged to have the front seats on their buses reserved with black ribbons. After a memorial service was held in a Montgomery church her casket was then flown to Washington and transported in a city bus to lay in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. After another “lying in state” in Detroit, and another multi-hour funeral she was laid to rest in a family tomb.
Historians may sometimes wonder if the Civil Rights Movement would have taken place if Mrs. Parks had agreed to give up her seat on the Montgomery bus, but Dr. King himself recognized Mrs. Parks’ refusal not as the cause of the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, but one major factor. “The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices,” he said. “Actually, no one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, ‘I can take it no longer.’”