This year marks the 60th anniversary of the federal lawsuit ruling that bus segregation was unconstitutional. And you can’t mention bus segregation without Rosa Parks, referred to many as the mother of the civil rights movement.
Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a crowded Montgomery bus on Dec. 1, 1955, thrust the civil rights movement into the forefront of American life. She was arrested, tried and found guilty of refusing to obey a bus driver. In response, blacks led by Atlanta-born Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. boycotted Montgomery buses for 381 days.
Parks’ lawyers sued. In June 1956, a three-judge federal panel ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court later upheld the ruling.
The Montgomery bus protest was the first widespread public opposition to segregation and the first to receive nationwide press coverage. It moved civil rights into the streets and beyond the Supreme Court chamber, where the Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation ruling had been issued 19 months before Parks’ arrest.
Although Parks wasn’t the first black woman arrested for refusing to give up her seat, her strength of character helped spark a movement. It didn’t hurt that she was already a longtime member of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which she joined in 1943. At the time of her arrest, she was a secretary of the local NAACP chapter, and the previous summer she had attended a workshop for social and economic justice at Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School. Her political activism continued through her life.
The Montgomery events helped lay the foundation for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act.
A demure seamstress, Parks seemed an unlikely catalyst for historic social protest. She “redefined notions of what it takes to be a revolutionary,” former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young said in 1985.
In her autobiography, Parks laid to rest some myths surrounding that historic moment.
- She didn’t refuse to give up her seat because her feet hurt. She said she wasn’t tired of a long day’s work, she was tired of the injustice.
- Her act of defiance wasn’t premeditated. Although she knew the NAACP was looking for a case to test the constitutionality of the Jim Crow law, she did not set out to be arrested on bus 2857. Parks wrote that she was preoccupied that day and, “If I had been paying attention I wouldn’t even have gotten on that bus.”
- Weeks after her arrest, Parks was jailed a second time for her role in the boycott. She was on the board of directors of the group organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott and worked a short time as a dispatcher, arranging carpool rides for boycotters. On Feb. 21, 1956, a grand jury indicted Parks and dozens of others for violating a state law against organized boycotting. She and 114 others were arrested, and The New York Times ran a front-page photograph of police fingerprinting Parks.
Parks died of natural causes at age 92 on October 24, 2005. She received a final tribute usually reserved for statesman and military leaders when her body was brought to the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. More than 30,000 people filed past her coffin to pay their respects.