SAN JOSE: Women’s Month, celebrated each March, provides a unique opportunity to reflect upon Rosa Parks (b. February 4, 1913, Tuskegee, AL – d. October 24, 2005, Detroit, MI), a woman who became an international icon of the civil rights movement.
Many Americans hold the image of Rosa Parks as the little elderly Negro lady, who through a bold act of defiance, launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott, becoming a symbol of the civil rights struggle.
Yet, there is much more to her story.
Rosa Parks’ act of defiance was not a spontaneous effort of an individual weary from a long history of racially instigated civil abuses. In fact, Rosa Parks was not the first woman to challenge the police authority of a bus driver in Montgomery, Alabama. Rosa Parks is among the many who protested against the Jim Crow segregation, including the practice of “Negros to the back” of public buses.
In 1944, a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army by the name of Jackie Robinson refused to move to the back of a local bus and ended up in a confrontation with an Army officer in Fort Hood, Texas. This future major league ball player (yes, that Jackie Robinson) was brought up on serious charges, and ultimately faced a military court-martial. Jackie Robinson was eventually acquitted.
It was after World War II that the NAACP began to actively investigate and litigate such cases.
One such legal challenge involved a woman named Irene Morgan. Morgan v. Virginia, 328 U.S. 373 (1946) was argued by William H. Hastie (b. November 17, 1904 – d. April 14, 1976) an American, lawyer, judge, educator, public official, and civil rights advocate.
The Morgan action resulted in a landmark ruling that Virginia’s state law enforcing segregation on interstate buses was illegal. At the time, Morgan said:
“If something happens to you which is wrong, the best thing to do is have it corrected in the best way you can… The best thing for me to do was to go to the Supreme Court.”
Even though this case was historic and overturned state segregation laws, such laws did not apply to travel on buses within state boundaries, but it did lead to the U.S. Supreme Court setting the precedent that interstate commerce came under the Commerce Clause, and segregation on buses traveling from state to state was unconstitutional.
Most southern states (those of the former Confederacy) allowed the bus companies to simply bypass the federal Morgan ruling, and the individual companies followed their own Jim Crow practices of segregation. They left it to the individual bus drivers to enforce restrictions.
During this time, several efforts were made to challenge such Jim Crow discrimination in various southern states.
Many historians recognize the very first civil rights boycott challenging the practice of segregation on public buses within states was as the one organized in 1953 by Rev. T. J. Jemison in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. After the city-parish council passed a law that abolished race-based seating restrictions, allowing African-Americans to sit in the front seats of Baton Rouge buses when there were no white passengers aboard.
However, white bus drivers went on strike after Rev. Jemison took a seat in a front row of a bus. City authorities refused to arrest the bold black minister, however, bowing to the demands of the bus drivers, the Louisiana Attorney General ruled the city ordinance to be counter to Louisiana state law.
On February 25, 1953, Rev. Jemison organized a boycott of Baton Rouge buses.
A similar incident arose on March 2, 1955, when Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old student at Booker T. Washington High School in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. She was subsequently arrested, handcuffed, and forcibly removed from the public bus.
Many civil rights activists were attempting to use Colvin’s case to build a legal challenge to the bus segregation laws throughout the south, but the NAACP decided to not make her a focal point as young Colvin had become pregnant out of wedlock, and such a public image would have been controversial and poorly received by the public.
Claudette Colvin had been an active member of the Youth Council of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, the same local chapter that Rosa Parks had belonged to since 1943. Parks served as an advisor to this youth group as one of her chapter responsibilities. By 1955, Parks was also serving as secretary to the president of the Alabama NAACP, Edgar D. Nixon, a position she held until 1957.
Rosa Parks was in her forties during this time, and by 1955, she had completed a course in “Race Relations” at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee (now known as The Highlander Research and Education Center), a European-styled training center founded for political activists in 1934 (most likely labor union activists organizing in coal mines).
Through the training center, Parks learned about non-violent civil disobedience as a tactic of peaceful political change. Other notable leaders of the future Civil Rights Movement, such as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dr. Ralph Abernathy attended similar training facilities.
For several years, NAACP leaders, like E. D. Nixon, and other legal activists in the NAACP sought to bring a solid test case to challenge the segregation laws throughout the South. Rosa Parks became the primary personage of such an effort on December 1, 1955 when, after a day of work at her regular job, she boarded a local bus, and was eventually prodded by the bus driver to surrender her seat in the front row of seats of the colored section to a white passenger who was unable to get a seat in the “Whites Only” area.
Like Claudette Colvin before her, Parks refused and was arrested at the scene. She was taken to police headquarters and charged with a violation of Chapter 6, Section 11, of the Montgomery City Code.
Rosa Parks’ defiance took courage. Other black passengers, who had been ordered to move, complied with the bus driver’s command to vacate the entire row of seats, which was the normal procedure based on the actual practices of bus segregation in that day. Parks’ defiance landed her in jail.
That night E. D. Nixon made sure she was released on bail, and Parks agreed to let the NAACP handle her case. Nixon believed that Rosa Parks’ act of defiance provided a reputable individual as the plaintiff, as well as a more substantial case, for the ensuing legal challenge to Alabama’s segregation laws.
Rosa Parks’ plight sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott that is regarded as the first massive demonstration against entrenched segregation in the U.S. December 5th was the date of her court case, and Parks was found guilty. The sentence was suspended, and she was fined $10.00 plus a court cost of $4.00. She appealed.
Initially, the Women’s Political Council (WPC) planned for only one day, the day of Park’s court case, of protest boycotting Montgomery public buses. After a day of buses driving through Montgomery without black folks riding them, the effort mushroomed.
That evening of December 5th, thousands of citizens crowded into the Holt Street Baptist Church and decided to create the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) for a more prolonged challenge to Jim Crow segregation.
They elected a 26-year-old minister named Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., as their leader and the boycott proceeded from that evening to December 20, 1956, a period of 381 days.
The WPC and Dr. King eventually filed a legal challenge in the United States District Court, and that court ultimately declared the segregated seating rules on the city buses to be unconstitutional. The Supreme Court upheld this decision and ultimately ordered Montgomery to integrate its buses.
The WPC and Dr. King eventually filed a legal challenge in the United States District Court, and that court ultimately declared the segregated seating rules on the city buses to be unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court upheld this decision and ultimately ordered Montgomery to integrate its buses.
Unfortunately, it had no real relevance to the white southern society at the time. Rosa Parks was fired from her regular job as a seamstress in a Montgomery department store. Her notoriety spread and she could find no other work, and her husband also lost his job. This created real financial hardship for them
In 1992, Parks published Rosa Parks: My Story, a compelling autobiography that recounted her life while in Montgomery and in the Civil Rights Movement. She was a strong woman standing for justice, risking her life, when others were killed by acting defiantly in a dominant white-ruled southern society.
In 1995, forty years after her activism began, she published her memoirs in Quiet Strength. The book focuses on the role her faith played throughout such a significant life.
In 1996, Rosa Parks was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given by the President of the United States. In 1999 she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award given by the U.S. Congress.
Rosa Parks passed away on October 24, 2005, but the memory of her heroic defiance of injustice lives on.