It was a rainy afternoon in Montgomery, Alabama. Metropolitan bus driver James F. Blake pulled the Cleveland Street bus up to the stop, where waited a young black woman. The woman got aboard, and paid her fare. She started to walk up the aisle to have a seat. But that was a violation of the rules. According to an early municipal ordinance, a black person in Montgomery had to leave the bus after paying the fare, then re-enter the bus through the rear entrance. Of course enforcement of the arcane law was all up to the white bus drivers.
Blake admonished the woman, and made her disembark. She did, but before she could get back aboard, Blake drove off, leaving the woman standing in the rain. She would either have to wait for the next bus, or walk home. There is no indication she was reimbursed for her ten cents fare.
The black woman was one Rosa McCauley Parks. Yes, the Rosa Parks. This incident occurred in 1943, some 12 years before her dramatic ride into history.
Blake, a World War II veteran, was merely doing his job.
Rosa Parks was then about 30 years old. She had been born in poverty in Montgomery, and was well versed in such injustice, especially around buses. And white people. She remembered walking miles to the “negro school” as white kids rode by in buses. In another incident, a ten-year-old white kid sought to attack her younger brother, but Rosa, brandishing a brick, dissuaded the young racist and he ran off.
In 1932, at age 19, Rosa McCauley married local barber Raymond Parks. He was no mere barber. He was a curious, well-educated local activist. He encouraged Rosa to attend college, and become as curious as he was. And after several tries, she registered to vote.
Was the 1943 incident in the rain the culmination of this early education, the impetus that got Rosa involved in the local NAACP? She indeed became secretary of the chapter, and got involved in protests of early civil rights outrages, particularly that of the tragedy of Emmett Till in the summer of 1955. Till, a teenager who had been living in Chicago was visiting family in southern Mississippi when he was accused of flirting with a white woman. Till’s vicious murder and the subsequent trial (and acquittal) of his kidnappers and murderers particularly galvanized Black outrage of Southern injustices, one of the most pivotal moments in the history of the movement.
And a pivotal moment in the life of Rosa Parks, for she was thinking of Emmett Till when she refused to move from her seat on the bus.
The local civil rights activists in Montgomery, Alabama, in particular local NAACP chairman, ironically named Nixon, and a new young minister named Martin L. King, had been looking for ways to fight the abuses visited upon Rosa Parks and thousands of other municipal bus riders. 75% of bus ridership were black citizens, yet they had to endure the Jim Crow rules. Over time in the early 1950’s, two women had refused to give up their seats, but, given their questionable lifestyles, were not considered good candidates for legal remedies that might end the discrimination.
On December 1st, 1955, Rosa Parks, now 42 years of age, had spent the day working as a seamstress at a local department store. She boarded the Cleveland Street bus around 6 PM. She sat in the second row on the right. Next to her, and across the aisle from her, sat three other black passengers. Movable signage in the bus indicated that she was seated in the “colored” section of the bus.
A few minutes later, in front of the Emporium Theatre, the bus stopped and picked up a number of white riders. There were no seats for them in the front, and some were forced to stand.
These white customers standing, while several black folks sat was too much for the driver to abide. So the driver moved the “colored section” sign to one row behind Rosa Parks’ row. He insisted she and the other three black riders relocate, to accommodate the new white customers.
Three of the black passengers briefly protested, but dutifully got up and moved.
Rosa Parks refused. “I thought of Emmett Till, and I knew I could not move. I had had enough. The empowerment I felt covered me like a warm quilt on a winter’s day.” The bus driver gave Parks fair warning, and would call the police otherwise. Rosa Parks said that was his right.
And so the driver and Rosa Parks made their fateful decisions.
Oh, and the driver? James F. Blake – the same driver who had coldly collected Rosa Parks’ fare in 1943, forced her to disembark in the rain, and drove off without her. Parks had vowed never to enter a bus driven by Blake again, and kept to that vow for over 12 years. But on this day, she did not see who was driving.
So perhaps Blake’s earlier asinine behavior had some part in Parks’ defiance. And so goes fate and history. Heroes and villains. Very often it is a villain who strikes the spark in awesome moments in history. And very often a soft spoken, regular citizen is thrust into the role of hero.
Such was the little drama enacted on that bus on that day in that city in 1955.
Rosa Parks was arrested by local officers for violation of the municipal code. She asked them why they were pushing people around. They of course said they were simply enforcing the law. Rosa Parks was resolute, conquering the very real fears that existed in that era, making her small protest more than a little significant and heroic. People died for less in those places in that era.
In Parks, Nixon, King and others had found the case they were looking for: a gentle woman, a good citizen, with a good family being “pushed around” by absurdity of Jim Crow. Eldridge Cleaver put it, “Somewhere in the universe a gear in the machinery had shifted” because of what Rosa Parks did. Her refusal to move was the catalyst for the first great stride in what we now refer to as the Civil Rights Movement: the Montgomery bus boycott.
Parks was bailed out by Mr. Nixon, and on the days before her brief trial, a meeting was held among activists, including Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King. They spread the word that the day of her trial blacks should skip school or work if necessary, or walk, or carpool.
Just stay off the buses.
And they did so. Then it was decided to continue the process. Defying death threats, and the usual intimidations of life in the deep Jim Crow south, the black citizens of Montgomery boycotted the buses for days, weeks, months – a year. Rosa Parks worked as a dispatcher to coordinate carpools and jitney-style cabs (charging only 10 cents – the same as the bus fare). And of course, many opted to walk – some as much as 20 miles to work. But they stayed off the buses.
The Montgomery bus company nearly went bankrupt. In mid December of 1956, the rules were changed. There were no more “colored sections” on Montgomery buses. Other boycotts followed in other cities.
There were beatings and threats. For safety’s sake, Rosa, her husband Ray and mother moved to Detroit, where they had relatives.
Thus emboldened, there was to follow the desegregation of high schools, colleges and lunch counters. There was voter registration. Many of the protestors, marchers and workers and lawyers were white, many were beaten, and many were killed.
But many earned their freedom.
This is what Rosa Parks’ refusal to move wrought. There were, and remain, many agitators in the cause of social justice with more strident attitudes, soaring oratory, and intense focus.
But it also takes people like her – people like us – ordinary citizens, to “shift the machinery”. This is what makes the story of Rosa Parks so heartening, hopeful and significant. Her name has been invoked by no less than Nelson Mandela. Many events are referred to as “a Rosa Parks moment”.
What is interesting is that, yes, she did work for the NAACP, but her bus ride was unrelated – her moment of protest was undertaken quietly after work as a seamstress and had no clue the infamous driver James Blake would undertake to move the “colored only” sign. It was others who picked up the baton and turned her protest into history. Her very ordinariness is what has made her story so compelling and so mighty.
Parks did not seek the spotlight after her moment in time. She worked for many years in the office of Rep. John Conyers in Michigan. She cared for her husband and her mother who both died of cancer in the 1970’s. She was bestowed great honors over the years and revered as a civil rights icon.
2013 would have been the 100th anniversary of her birth.
Interestingly enough, 2012 would have been the 100th anniversary of the birth of James F. Blake, the Montgomery bus driver who had insisted that Rosa Parks move from her seat. He was the same guy who made her get out of his bus in the rain 12 years before. As often happens in history, evil sets the tone and, ironically, in so doing, sparks an act of courage which eventually rights the wrong forever.
“People think I was tired because I was old,” said Rosa Parks many years later. “I wasn’t old then. And I was no more tired than I was any other time after a long day at work. The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Valley Dems United
Monday, 18 March 2013