On this day in 1955, Rosa Parks is arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
Fortunately, the unjust segregation laws that she was protesting would soon come to an end through peaceful acts of civil disobedience (such as her own), combined with non-violent protests led by men such as Martin Luther King, Jr.
As you know, at that point in history, passengers were segregated aboard buses in places such as Montgomery. Obviously, Rosa Parks had a pretty big problem with this system! In fact, she nearly got herself into trouble years before her famous arrest. She’d entered a bus, paid her fare, then tried to continue boarding from the front door. She was told that she need to exit and re-enter from the back.
How demeaning! In a show of defiance, Parks dropped her purse, then purposefully sat in a seat in the white section while she picked it up. The bus driver was irate, but Parks simply left without attempting to get back on the bus.
In the years that followed, Parks would avoid riding buses whenever she could.
On December 1, 1955, however, Parks was taking a bus home after work. She sat in the middle of the bus, just behind the white section. As the bus continued its route, it took on more white passengers until, finally, one white male found himself without a seat. The bus driver ordered Parks and three other passengers to vacate their row.
Parks decided not to get up, but to scoot over to the window seat instead. There was room for the new passenger, but he would need to sit next to Parks.
The bus driver ordered Parks to stand up and get out of the row. But Parks “felt that, if I did stand up, it meant that I approved of the way I was being treated, and I did not approve.” People often relate that Parks was simply tired after a long day at work, but that wasn’t really it. “No, the only tired I was,” she later said, “was tired of giving in.”
It turns out that the bus driver was the same guy who had become irate with Parks years earlier. (Oops.) He decided that simply removing her from the bus was insufficient. He called the police and demanded her arrest.
Parks was taken to jail and booked. She did not resist the arrest, but went along peacefully. She was soon released on bail.
Parks was affiliated with the local NAACP chapter, which soon seized the opportunity to protest the segregation laws. The NAACP noted that the vast majority of bus passengers were black. The loss of those fares would obviously deal a serious blow to the city. Thus, a boycott was organized for December 5, the day of Parks’s trial. Many people carpooled, walked, or took taxis, but they did NOT use the city’s buses that day.
The boycott was a stunning success. A new group was soon organized to lead a more long-lasting boycott. The head of this new group was a relative newcomer on the scene, Martin Luther King, Jr.
That boycott held strong for more than a year, even as King, Parks, and others were repeatedly harassed and threatened. Nor, for the record, was support for the effort entirely one-sided. Some white people helped provide rides for those who were trying to avoid the bus. Others made donations to help. A lawsuit was filed, contesting the racial segregation aboard buses. About one year after Parks was arrested, the Supreme Court held that such segregation was unconstitutional.
One peaceful act of civil disobedience had started a chain of events that made a huge difference for millions of Americans.
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
- Cheryl Phibbs, The Montgomery Bus Boycott: A History and Reference Guide (2009)
- David Aretha, The Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Photographs (2014)
- Douglas Brinkley, Rosa Parks: A Life (2000)
- Jeanne Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (2014)
- National Archives website, An Act of Courage, The Arrest Records of Rosa Parks
- Rosa Parks, Rosa Parks: My Story (1999)