THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: DECEMBER 1, 1955

Rosa Parks Arrested

rosa-parks-arrestedOn December 1, 1955, Rosa Louise Parks (1913–2005) refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus for a white passenger. This act of defiance against Jim Crow segregation sparked the Montgomery bus boycott—often heralded as the beginning of the modern Civil Rights movement—a nonviolent economic boycott of Montgomery’s bus system by the black community that successfully ended racial segregation on the city’s public transit. For her courage and actions, Parks is widely considered the mother of the Civil Rights movement.

Rosa Louise McCauley was born on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama, to James and Leona McCauley. After James and Leona separated, Leona moved with her children, Rosa and Sylvester, to Pine Level, Alabama, a town on the outskirts of Montgomery where they lived with Leona’s parents. By the age of 11, Rosa attended the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, and a few years later, she attended the laboratory school at Alabama State Teacher’s College for Negroes in Montgomery. Family illnesses forced Rosa to abandon her education to support her family.

While living in Montgomery, 18-year-old Rosa met Raymond Parks, a barber. The self-educated Parks had been one of the charter members of Montgomery’s NAACP and had been actively involved in supporting the Scottsboro Boys’ defense in the early 1930s. Parks’s courage, at a time when black activism was extremely dangerous, deeply impressed Rosa. They were married on December 18, 1932, in Pine Level. Historian and Parks’s biographer Douglas Brinkley has noted that her husband was a significant factor in her radicalization during the Great Depression, as he would discuss the NAACP an its strategies for encouraging African American suffrage and integration with Parks. Encouraged by her husband, Rosa Parks returned to school and earned her high school diploma in 1933.

Until World War II, Parks had not been involved in the black civil rights struggle. This changed after she took a job at Maxwell Field in Montgomery in 1941. By 1943, all military bases, Maxwell Field included, had been desegregated. Unlike Montgomery’s city buses, she rode integrated trolleys on base and her experience at desegregated Maxwell prompted her to join the Montgomery NAACP. At her first meeting, Parks was elected secretary of the organization. In this capacity, she helped lead a voter registration drive, although white registrars worked diligently to keep African Americans off the voter rolls. It took until April 1945 for Parks to finally be registered to vote.

After the war, Parks continued as secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, but she also worked as a housekeeper and seamstress, most notably for the liberal white activists Clifford and Virginia Durr. In July 1955, Virginia Durr arranged for Parks to attend a two-week session on racial desegregation at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. The experience at Highlander, and her exposure to individuals such as civil rights pioneer Septima Clark, strengthened her desire to work for civil rights.

Just months after her return from Highlander, on the evening of December 1, 1955, Parks violated segregation laws by refusing to give her seat to a white passenger on a city bus. Parks initially had been seated in the first row of the black section, but as more whites boarded the bus, the color line moved farther back. When this occurred, African Americans were expected to relinquish their seats to make room for the white passengers. Parks refused. The bus driver, James F. Blake, called the police and had Parks arrested. As she recounted in her autobiography, she was not physically tired. A few days later, Parks was found guilty of disorderly conduct and violating a Montgomery ordinance and fined $10, plus $4 in court costs.

In response to Parks’s arrest, E. D. Nixon and Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at Alabama State College, met to discuss a boycott of the bus system by Montgomery’s African Americans. At a subsequent mass meeting, Martin Luther King Jr., the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, was chosen to lead the effort. The entire African American community supported the Montgomery bus boycott, refusing to ride the city’s buses for 381 days, placing a tremendous financial strain on the bus company. On May 11, 1956, a federal court decision in Browder v. Gayle ruled Alabama’s bus segregation laws unconstitutional, upheld by the United States Supreme Court on November 13, 1956. The boycott came to an end on December 20, 1956, after the city passed a desegregation ordinance for the city’s buses. Whereas the boycott propelled King into national prominence as the leader of the Civil Rights movement, Rosa Parks’s courageous refusal to give in to the inequities of the Jim Crow system made her a symbolic figure whose inspiration reached well beyond the borders of the United States.

Although Parks was a symbol of the Civil Rights movement and an inspiration to millions because of her courage and quiet dignity, official recognition of her contributions to American history came late in her life. On September 9, 1996, President William J. Clinton presented her with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to a civilian. A few years later, on May 3, 1999, she received a Congressional Gold Medal. Time magazine also recognized her as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Rosa Parks died on October 24, 2005, in Detroit at the age of 92. In striking contrast to her notoriety as one of the most detested figures in the United States after the boycott, Rosa Park became the first woman in American history to lie in state in the United States Capitol. It is estimated that 50,000 people paid their respects to the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Puckett, Dan J. “Parks, Rosa.” Encyclopedia of African American History. Ed. Leslie M. Alexander and Walter C. Rucker. Vol. 3. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010. 955-957. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web.


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