On this day in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to get out of her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her subsequent arrest, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that followed helped kick start the civil rights movement in the United States.
Rosa Parks was born in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1913, and throughout her lifetime was subjected to second-class citizenship. Through the 1896 United States Supreme Court ruling on Plessy v. Ferguson, ‘separate but equal’ was the law of the land, such that segregation was permissible in public facilities. From the movie theatres, restaurants, public transit, washrooms and even water fountains, blacks were separated from using the same facilities as whites.
Montgomery bus segregation policies mandating that the seats on a bus be divvied up between white and black, with the white seats at the front of the bus and black seats to the rear. The amount of white seats was not fixed, such that if all the white seats became occupied, black passengers were expected to give up their seats and either move further back on the bus, stand, or exit the bus. Additionally, if white passengers were already seated at the front of the bus, black passengers were expected to pay their fare at the front, exit the bus, and then reenter the bus through the rear doors. The black community of Montgomery, who made up almost 75% of the ridership of the buses, had long protested these policies, to no avail. Segregation was alive in the American South, and it would take a climactic event to change things.
On December 1st, 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a bus in downtown Montgomery. After paying her fare, she sat in an empty seat on the first row of designated “black seats”. As the bus continued on its route, the white seats became occupied, and soon enough, white passengers had now boarded without a seat in sight. The bus driver, James F. Blake, ordered four black passengers including Rosa Parks out of their seats, in order to make room for the white passengers. Rosa Parks refused to get up. When asked by Blake, “Why don’t you stand up?” Rosa Parks replied, “I don’t think that I should have to stand up.” Blake proceeded to call the police, and subsequently Rosa Parks was arrested for civil disobedience and violating the segregation laws of Montgomery.
Rosa Parks’ arrest spawned demands for action amongst the black community of Montgomery. Through community organization in newspapers and at churches, a boycott of the Montgomery bus system was planned. On the day of Rosa Parks’ trial, 35000 leaflets were handed out to the black community that read:
“We are…asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial … You can afford to stay out of school for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don’t ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off the buses Monday.”
The boycott was a success, leading residents to continue the boycott for over a year (381 days to be exact). The monetary loss to the city due to inactivity of the buses, as well as a United States Supreme Court ruling in Browder v. Gayle that segregation on public buses was illegal, led the city to end official segregation on buses in Montgomery. As well, the case of Rosa Parks gained domestic and international attention to the situation of African-Americans and the civil rights movement. It was from this event that Martin Luther King Jr. gained prominence as a leader in the movement, helping to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rosa Parks became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, and lived a long life, passing away on October 24th, 2005. Today, December 1st, is celebrated as Rosa Parks Day in state of Ohio, whereas in the state of California, her birthday, February 4th, is celebrated as Rosa Parks Day.