A Peace Portrait
By Our Research Wing
“Look, woman, I told you I wanted the seat. Are you going to stand up?”
“If you don’t stand up, I’m going to have you arrested,” the bus driver said.
“I’m not going to move,” Rosa Parks said.
Mrs. Parks had had a busy day at her job as a seamstress in a men’s clothing store. Her neck and shoulder ached when she got on the bus. It was late afternoon. Cold and dark. Montgomery , Alabama . December 1, 1955.
This famous episode sometimes serves to introduce not the story of Rosa Parks , but a man who would become well-known soon after Parks “would not be moved.” The dialogue cited here, in fact, opens a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., by David J. Garrow, who received the Pulitzer Prize in 1987.
“I wasn’t planning to be arrested at all,” Parks admitted later. “I had a full weekend planned. It was December, Christmas time.” As a tailor’s assistant, she knew the next few weeks could be hectic, with a backlog of sewing to do and alterations to make; also, as secretary for the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she “was preparing for the weekend workshop of the Youth Council,” which she advised.
After James F. Blake, the bus driver, questioned her, policemen came onto the bus to warn Parks that, according to Alabama state law, she had to give up her seat to a white man. “Why do you treat us this way?” she asked. In refusing to stand, she helped to usher in a nonviolent revolution that changed the South. The next day her arrest led to a boycott of Montgomery city buses by 50,000 black people, 75 percent of whom depended upon the public transit.
The boycott led, in turn, to local clergy forming the Montgomery Improvement Association and electing a young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., as its first chair. The twenty-six-year-old son and grandson of preachers and a doctoral candidate at Boston University’s School of Theology, King had recently moved to the state capitol of Alabama with his wife and young child. He had accepted a call as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church , a well-known black congregation in the shadow of the State Capitol Building.
The boycott of the buses following Parks’ arrest lasted from December 1944 until December 1956 when the Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional. In 1956, Parks rode on a desegregated bus, again, with driver James F. Blake. “He didn’t react at all,” she said later, “and neither did I.”
Born February 4, 1913 , in Tuskegee , Alabama , Rosa Louise McCauley is the daughter of James and Leona Edwards McCauley, a carpenter and a teacher. When she was two, Rosa, her parents and young brother moved to her grandparents’ farm in the same state. She remembers “going to sleep as a girl hearing the Klan ride at night and hearing a lynching and being afraid the house would burn down.” At eleven, she enrolled in a private industrial school for girls in Montgomery , which had been founded by white women from the North.
In 1932, Rosa McCauley married Raymond Parks, a barber who had been working in voter registration campaigns, civil rights and union organizing for several years. Later, she attended what is now Alabama State University , in Montgomery, and worked with the Montgomery Voters League, NAACP Youth Council, and other organizations. In 1943, Parks was elected secretary of the local NAACP. That year, after she paid her fare at the front, a bus driver tried to make her leave the bus and reenter through the back door. It was that same bus driver who confronted her on that historic day in 1955.
Although continually threatened and eventually fired from her job, Rosa Parks remained in Montgomery until 1947, a year after the successful bus boycott, when she and her husband moved to Detroit to live near her mother and brother. Her husband had suffered a breakdown in Alabama , and even though she continued fund-raising efforts for NAACP by appearing at rallies around the country, they endured several years of ill-health and low-paying jobs in Detroit . That year, John Conyers, Jr., a Michigan congressman and leader in civil rights, welfare, and anti-war movements, hired her to work in his office, where she met visitors and assisted him with various efforts on behalf of workers.
In recent years, in public appearances and occasional articles (particularly in connection with celebrations honoring the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.,) Parks has been recognized for her essential contribution to the civil rights movement. Among her several projects for the common good is the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, initiated in 1987 (ten years after her husband’s death), which focuses on “the average child who may profit most from the lessons of history and from programs designed to foster awareness and involvement.” One of its programs is the annual Reverse Freedom Tour, which takes teenagers on bus tours retracing the Underground Railroad, the route that 19 th century slaves took to Canada , and visits sites of the Civil Rights movement, including the spot where Parks “would not be moved.”
Rosa Parks was not the first person arrested for refusing to “move to the back of the bus.” A famous Supreme Court ruling against school segregation (Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka) in 1954 had given impetus to desegregation efforts in Montgomery. Before Parks’ arrest, campaigns had been organized around the trials of two young women who had been arrested for similar disobedience. For various reasons, the NAACP and the Women’s Political Council, which had also been active on behalf of desegregation, decided by 1955 that the time had come to contest an arrest in court. Jo Ann Robinson, a woman active in the campaign, supported the decision to use Parks because she regarded heras a person who could carry the weight of the case in court, someone who was “quiet, unassuming, and pleasant in manner and appearance; dignified and reserved; of high morals and strong character.”
Mrs. Parks’s husband felt differently. “The white folks will kill you, Rosa,” he told her; others warned her as well. Parks agreed to go along with the plan, believing her appeal of the $13 fine might “mean something to Montgomery and do some good,” And of course, it did.
The story of Rosa Parks is powerful for a number of reasons, in part because of her quiet courage and patience in accepting the risks associated with arrest. Equally impressive and essential, however, is the preparation she made for that moment and the community building in the years preceding it: the day-to-day, modest assignments and tedious hours as secretary of the NAACP; the educational outreach with the Youth Council; meetings with Myles Horton and Septima P. Clark at the Highlander Folk School, a Tennessee training institute for organizers; even, as she has suggested, her choice of a husband. (Before their marriage, she knew of his work in defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black youth unfairly convicted of raping a white women in 1931.)
As a person and historical figure, Rosa Parks dramatizes a fact evident in the history of nonviolence social change: the “ordinariness” of those responsible for momentous changes in human affairs-an “ordinariness” that is also extraordinary. An accident of history-the time, place, and person responsible for a turn of events-is almost never quite an accident, but a coming together of diverse and conscious forces. One person seizes the moment or several people nudge it toward the best possible conclusion. Gandhi did exactly that, in initiating a famous march to the sea, which challenged British authority in India and culminated with India ‘s independence. Ammon Hennacy and Dorothy Day did it, in encouraging nonviolent disobedience against civil defense drills, which in turn led to nuclear test ban treaties between the U.S. and the Soviet Union . Martin Luther King, Jr. Did it, in recognizing Rosa Parks’ contribution and learning as quickly as possible what Glenn Smiley and Bayard Rustin had to teach about orchestrating a large-scale movement to end segregation in the South.
We often learn that social change comes not from one action or one personal though one courageous person may “spark” a freedom movement, as the song, “Sister Rosa,” says. Effective and lasting social change comes, ultimately from the action, cooperation, and community that are sustained and carried on by “ordinary people” and “ordinary actions” in “ordinary times.”