On this date in 1955, Rosa Parks was riding home from work on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, as usual—and bus driver James Blake asked her to give up her seat to a white male passenger. Sadly, that was usual, too, for the Montgomery bus system.
According to Wikipedia, the bus segregation rules were capricious as well as deeply unfair:
In Montgomery, the first four rows of bus seats were reserved for white people. Buses had "colored" sections for black people—who made up more than 75% of the bus system's riders—generally in the rear of the bus. These sections were not fixed in size but were determined by the placement of a movable sign. Black people also could sit in the middle rows, until the white section was full. Then they had to move to seats in the rear, stand, or, if there was no room, leave the bus. Black people were not allowed to sit across the aisle from white people. The driver also could move the "colored" section sign, or remove it altogether.Rosa Parks was not sitting in the “white section” of the bus. Instead, she and three other black passengers happened to be in the first row of the "colored section" when the white section filled up. The bus driver directed the four to get up and move back. The other three complied, but Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. She was arrested, fingerprinted, and jailed by the police, and fined $14.
Rosa Parks was not the first black passenger to refuse to give up her seat. As a matter of fact, this was not the first time she herself had made such a refusal—twelve years earlier, she had refused to give up her seat to a white passenger and was forcibly ejected from the bus.* Several other women and girls had refused to give up their seats, including a 15 year old right there in Montgomery.
However, it was Parks' refusal and arrest in 1955 that led to the Montgomery bus boycott and brought national attention to the civil rights movement. That is why Congress called Rosa Parks “the Mother of the Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement.”
Why her? Why this particular act?
Rosa Parks was the spark the lit the successful bus boycott and furthered the civil rights movement because she was the perfect person to become a symbol of the movement. Unlike that 15-year-old girl mentioned above, she was married, employed, and politically knowledgeable. She was quiet and dignified. She was the secretary of the Montgomery NAACP and was already involved with the civil rights movement, although she had acted that day just as an individual, with no plan in mind.
She was courageous.
Rosa Parks became a powerful symbol, in the U.S. and even internationally, for righteous resistance against racism and discrimination.
“People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”Read and watch an interview with Rosa Parks here.
Draw faces inside the bus on this coloring page.
Listen to Rosa Parks at the History Channel website.
* Rosa Parks had also had a previous run-in with this particular driver, James Blake. One time when she entered the front of the bus and paid, he didn't want the white people sitting in the front to have to tolerate a black woman walking by them, so he told her to get off the bus and walk to the back entrance before she could sit down. Again, this was a pretty normal as well as completely unreasonable request. She started to obey but dropped her purse, and as she picked up her purse, she sat for a moment in one of the “white only” seats. Blake was furious and, after Parks got out of the bus, he didn't wait for her to get back on through the back entrance—he just sped off. That meant that Rosa Parks had to walk home—more than five miles, in the rain—even though she had paid the bus fare!