December 1: Remembering when Rosa Parks stood up for freedom, by sitting down


Rosa Parks being fingerprinted, Library of Congress

Mrs. Parks being fingerprinted in Montgomery, Alabama; photo from New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, Library of Congress

Rosa Parks: “Why do you push us around?”

Officer: “I don’t know but the law is the law and you’re under arrest.”

From Rosa Parks with Gregory J. Reed, Quiet Strength
(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1994), page 23.

Photo: Mrs. Parks being fingerprinted in Montgomery, Alabama; photo from New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, Library of Congress

Today in History at the Library of Congress provides the simple facts:

On the evening of December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, an African American, was arrested for disobeying an Alabama law requiring black passengers to relinquish seats to white passengers when the bus was full. Blacks were also required to sit at the back of the bus. Her arrest sparked a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system and led to a 1956 Supreme Court decision banning segregation on public transportation.

Rosa Parks made a nearly perfect subject for a protest on racism. College-educated, trained in peaceful protest at the famous Highlander Folk School, Parks was known as a peaceful and respected person. The sight of such a proper woman being arrested and jailed would provide a schocking image to most Americans. Americans jolted awake.

Often lost in the retelling of the story are the threads that tie together the events of the civil rights movement through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. As noted, Parks was a trained civil rights activist. Such training in peaceful and nonviolent protest provided a moral power to the movement probably unattainable any other way. Parks’ arrest was not planned, however. Parks wrote that as she sat on the bus, she was thinking of the tragedy of Emmet Till, the young African American man from Chicago, brutally murdered in Mississippi early in 1955. She was thinking that someone had to take a stand for civil rights, at about the time the bus driver told her to move to allow a white man to take her seat. To take a stand, she kept her seat. [More below the fold]

African Americans in Montgomery organized a boycott of the Montgomery bus system. This was also not unique, but earlier bus boycotts are unremembered. A bus boycott in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, earlier in 1955 did not produce nearly the same results.

The boycott organizers needed a place to meet, a large hall. The biggest building in town with such a room was the Dexter Street Baptist Church. At the first meeting on December 5, it made sense to make the pastor of that church the focal point of the boycott organizing, and so the fresh, young pastor, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was thrust into civil rights organizing as president, with Ralph Abernathy as program director. They called their group the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). When their organizing stretched beyond the city limits of Montgomery, the group became the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Litigation on the boycott went all the way to the Supreme Court (Browder v. Gale). The boycotters won. The 381-day boycott was ended on December 21, 1956, with the desegregation of the Montgomery bus system.

Sources for lesson plans and projects:

6 Responses to December 1: Remembering when Rosa Parks stood up for freedom, by sitting down

  1. […] “December 1:  Remembering when Rosa Parks stood up for history, by sitting down,” MFB D… […]

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  2. Murfyn says:

    “I don’t know but the law is the law and you’re under arrest.”
    Will any of the Bush administration miscreants ever hear those words addressed to them?

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  3. Shelley says:

    Sigh. Thanks for this post. I wish the major rights issues of our day (the growing power of the giant corporations) were as image-friendly as the battles those gallant civil rights workers fought.

    Hard to get people angry about something they can’t even picture.

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  4. Ed Darrell says:

    Good point. It was, perhaps, just happenstance that the first organizational meeting was in the church where newly-frocked preacher Martin Luther King, Jr., held the pulpit — but what a stroke of luck for the Montgomery Improvement Association that they had a guy who understood the whys and hows of organizing.

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  5. James Hanley says:

    A little discussed aspect of the bus boycott was its organizational complexity. Most blacks in Montgomery relied on public transit because they didn’t own cars, and boycotting made it difficult for them to get to their jobs. The black middle class of Montgomery, who did own cars, did a lot of chauffeuring of the boycotters so that they could actually continue the boycott without either losing their jobs due to not showing up or having to walk many miles to and from work each day. That was one of the major factors that caused boycotts in other cities to fade away before they had a chance to become really effective. But it wasn’t just the willingness of those with cars to play chauffeur–it was that the leadership successfully organized the chauffeuring effort so that it wasn’t just ad hoc.

    Our popular conceptions of the Civil Rights movement tend to emphasize mass protest, almost as though it was purely spontaneous. In reality, all the successful protest actions were built on very careful organizing by community leaders.

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