Sunday, February 3, 2013

Rosa Parks, Born February 4th, 1913 - 100 years ago

Rosa Parks, sitting next to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rosa Louise McCauley was born in Tuskegee, Alabama to Leona Edwards and James McCauley, a teacher and a carpenter. 

She was small as a child, suffering from poor health with chronic tonsillitis. When her parents separated, she moved with her mother to Pine Level, just outside the state capital of Montgomery. She grew up on a farm with her maternal grandparents, mother, and younger brother Sylvester. They all were members of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, a century-old independent black denomination founded by free blacks in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the early nineteenth century.

When the Ku Klux Klan marched down the street in front of their house, she saw her grandfather guarding the front door with a shotgun.

She recalled going to elementary school in Pine Level, where school buses took white students to their new school and black students had to walk to theirs:
I'd see the bus pass every day... But to me, that was a way of life; we had no choice but to accept what was the custom. The bus was among the first ways I realized there was a black world and a white world.
Rosa attended rural schools until the age of eleven. As a student at the Industrial School for Girls in Montgomery, she took academic and vocational courses. The Montgomery Industrial School, founded and staffed by white northerners for black children, was burned twice by arsonists. Its faculty was ostracized by the white community.

Rosa went on to a laboratory school set up by the Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes for secondary education, but dropped out in order to care for her grandmother and later her mother, after they became ill. 

She was born 48 years after the Civil War ended. The former Confederate states had passed new constitutions and electoral laws that effectively disfranchised black voters and, in Alabama, many poor white voters as well. Under the white-established Jim Crow laws, racial segregation was imposed in public facilities and retail stores in the South, including public transportation. Bus and train companies enforced seating policies with separate sections for blacks and whites. School bus transportation was unavailable in any form for black schoolchildren in the South, and black education was always underfunded.

Alabama State Capitol Building, Montgomery
In 1932, Rosa married Raymond Parks, a barber from Montgomery. He was a member of the NAACP, which at the time was collecting money to support the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of black men falsely accused of raping two white women. She took numerous jobs, ranging from domestic worker to hospital aide. At her husband's urging, she finished her high school studies in 1933, at a time when less than 7% of African Americans had a high school diploma. Despite the Jim Crow laws and discrimination by registrars, she succeeded in registering to vote on her third try.

Montgomery had passed a city ordinance to segregate bus passengers by race. Conductors were empowered to assign seats to achieve that goal. According to the law, no passenger would be required to move or give up his seat and stand if the bus was crowded and no other seats were available. Over time and by custom, however, Montgomery bus drivers adopted the practice of requiring black riders to move when there were no white-only seats left. The first four rows of seats on each Montgomery bus were reserved for whites. Buses had "colored" sections for black people generally in the rear of the bus, although blacks comprised more than 75% of the ridership. The sections were not fixed but were determined by placement of a movable sign. Black people could sit in the middle rows until the white section filled; if more whites needed seats, blacks were to move to seats in the rear, stand, or, if there was no room, leave the bus. Black people could not sit across the aisle in the same row as white people. The driver could move the "colored" section sign, or remove it altogether. If white people were already sitting in the front, black people had to board at the front to pay the fare, then disembark and reenter through the rear door.  

For years, the black community had complained that the situation was unfair. Blacks constituted the majority of bus riders, paid the same fare, yet received inferior and disrespectful service — often right in front of and in direct contrast to white riders. “I had so much trouble with so many bus drivers,” Parks recalled. That black people comprised the majority of riders made for even more galling situations on the bus. Some routes had very few white passengers yet the first 10 seats on every bus were always reserved for whites. On many bus routes, black riders would literally stand next to empty seats. 

James F. Blake
One day in 1943, Parks boarded the bus and paid the fare. She then moved to her seat but driver James F. Blake told her to follow city rules and enter the bus again from the back door. Parks exited the bus, but before she could re-board at the rear door, Blake drove off, leaving her to walk home in the rain.

In December 1943, Rosa Parks became active in the Civil Rights Movement, joined the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, and was elected secretary. She later said, "I was the only woman there, and they needed a secretary, and I was too timid to say no." She continued as secretary until 1957.

In the 1940s, Parks and her husband were members of the Voters' League. Sometime soon after 1944, she held a brief job at Maxwell Air Force Base, which as federal property did not permit racial segregation. She rode on its integrated trolley. Speaking to her biographer, Parks noted, "You might just say Maxwell opened my eyes up." 

Parks worked as a housekeeper and seamstress for Clifford and Virginia Durr, a white
Virginia and Clifford Durr
couple. Politically liberal, the Durrs became her friends. They encouraged—and eventually helped sponsor—Parks in the summer of 1955 to attend the Highlander Folk School, an education center for activism in workers' rights and racial equality in Monteagle, Tennessee.

In August 1955, black teenager Emmett Till was brutally murdered after reportedly flirting with a young white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi. On November 27, 1955, Rosa Parks attended a mass meeting in Montgomery that addressed this case as well as the recent murders of the activists George W. Lee and Lamar Smith. The featured speaker was T. R. M. Howard, a black civil rights leader from Mississippi who headed the Regional Council of Negro Leadership. The discussions concerned actions blacks could take to work for their rights.

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Parks refused to obey bus driver James F. Blake's order that she give up her seat in the colored section to a white passenger, after the white section was filled. Parks was not the first person to resist bus segregation. Others had taken similar steps, including Irene Morgan in 1946, Sarah Louise Keys in 1955, and Claudette Colvin nine months before Parks. NAACP organizers believed that Parks was the best candidate for seeing through a court challenge after her arrest for civil disobedience.

The downtown Court Square was decorated with Christmas lights. A banner over one store read “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men.” The festive atmosphere masked the race relations that had defined the place for its 150 years of existence. Slaves had been auctioned from that square. Across the street was the Exchange Hotel, which had served as the first headquarters of the Confederacy.

After working all day, Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus around 6 p.m., Thursday, December 1, 1955. She paid her fare and sat in an empty seat in the first row of back seats reserved for blacks in the "colored" section. Near the middle of the bus, her row was directly behind the ten seats reserved for white passengers. Initially, she did not notice that the bus driver was the same man, James F. Blake, who had left her in the rain in 1943. As the bus traveled along its regular route, all of the white-only seats in the bus filled up. The bus reached the third stop in front of the Empire Theater, and several white passengers boarded.  Blake noted that the front of the bus was filled with white passengers, with two or three standing. He moved the "colored" section sign behind Parks and demanded that four black people give up their seats in the middle section so that the white passengers could sit. Years later, in recalling the events of the day, Parks said, "When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night."

City code gave the “powers of the police officer” to bus drivers. Blake, like all of Montgomery’s bus drivers at that time, was white and carried a gun. When the boycott began, there were no black drivers on the city’s lines.

By Parks' account, Blake said, "Y'all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats." Three of them complied. Parks said, "The driver wanted us to stand up, the four of us. We didn't move at the beginning, but he says, 'Let me have these seats.' And the other three people moved, but I didn't." The black man sitting next to her gave up his seat. Parks moved, but toward the window seat; she did not get up to move to the redesignated colored section. Blake said, "Why don't you stand up?" Parks responded, "I don't think I should have to stand up." Blake called the police to arrest Parks. When recalling the incident for Eyes on the Prize, a 1987 public television series on the Civil Rights Movement, Parks said, "When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, 'No, I'm not.' And he said, 'Well, if you don't stand up, I'm going to have to call the police and have you arrested.' I said, 'You may do that.'"

Given her NAACP organizing experience, Parks was aware of the dangers a black woman faced in getting arrested. She knew that Claudette Colvin had been manhandled by police and others had been beaten or shot for their resistance. In her words, “I was well aware of what could happen or what might happen to me other than being arrested if they still wished to physically abuse me.” Stories circulated through the black community, according to Doris Crenshaw, of “women being pulled off the bus and raped and not arrested.” Parks knew what could happen “but I was resigned to the fact that I had to express my unwillingness to be humiliated in this manner.”

Parks was charged with a violation of Chapter 6, Section 11 segregation law of the Montgomery City code, although technically she had not taken a white-only seat; she had been in a colored section. Edgar Nixon, president of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and leader of the Pullman Union, and her friend Clifford Durr bailed Parks out of jail the next evening.  Nixon conferred with Jo Ann Robinson, an Alabama State College professor and member of the Women's Political Council (WPC), about the Parks' case. Robinson believed it important to seize the opportunity and stayed up all night mimeographing over 35,000 handbills announcing a bus boycott. The Women's Political Council was the first group to officially endorse the boycott. 

On Sunday, December 4, 1955, plans for the Montgomery Bus Boycott were announced at black churches in the area, and a front-page article in The Montgomery Advertiser helped spread the word. At a church rally that night, those attending agreed unanimously to continue the boycott until they were treated with the level of courtesy they expected, until black drivers were hired, and until seating in the middle of the bus was handled on a first-come basis.

The next day, Parks was tried on charges of disorderly conduct and violating a local ordinance. The trial lasted 30 minutes. After being found guilty and fined $10, plus $4 in court costs, Parks appealed her conviction and formally challenged the legality of racial segregation. In a 1992 interview with National Public Radio's Lynn Neary, Parks recalled:

I did not want to be mistreated, I did not want to be deprived of a seat that I had paid for. It was just time... there was opportunity for me to take a stand to express the way I felt about being treated in that manner. I had not planned to get arrested. I had plenty to do without having to end up in jail. But when I had to face that decision, I didn't hesitate to do so because I felt that we had endured that too long. The more we gave in, the more we complied with that kind of treatment, the more oppressive it became.
Black residents of Montgomery continued the boycott for 381 days, at considerable personal sacrifice. Dozens of public buses stood idle for months, severely damaging the bus transit company's finances, until the city repealed its law requiring segregation on public buses following the US Supreme Court ruling that it was unconstitutional.  Although widely honored in later years, she also suffered for her act; she was fired from her job as a seamstress in a local department store.

Parks on a Montgomery bus
on December 21, 1956,
the day Montgomery's public transportation
 system was legally integrated.
Parks' act of defiance and the Montgomery Bus Boycott became important symbols of the modern Civil Rights Movement. She became an international icon of resistance to racial segregation. She organized and collaborated with civil rights leaders, including Edgar Nixon, president of the local chapter of the NAACP; and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a new minister in town who gained national prominence in the civil rights movement.

Eventually, she moved to Detroit, Michigan. From 1965 to 1988 she served as secretary and receptionist to John Conyers, an African-American U.S. Representative. After retirement, Parks wrote her autobiography, and lived a largely private life in Detroit.

"I have learned over the years that when one's mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear."

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