“I want you to give up that seat!” demanded the white driver, James Blake.
“I am not giving it to you,” said Rosa Parks, the 42-year old black woman.
“Then I will report you to the police,” said Blake.
“Do what you wish,” replied the seamstress resolutely on that fateful day on December 1, 1955.
Most Americans know the famous story by now. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Rosa Parks was tired from a long day of work and she was tired from being judged for the color of her skin. That mistreatment was something she and other African Americans had had to endure every day of their lives– it wasn’t just a one-off occasion.
Racism, segregation and the Jim Crow laws were a fact of life for African-Americans.
“Our mistreatment was not right and I was tired of it,” wrote Parks in her book Quiet Strength. She was tired of being humiliated, tired of archaic rules that stopped her from sitting in the front of the bus, tired of entering public building through the back door and plain tired of having to give in.
The result of her arrest for violating a city ordinance was a trial and the subsequent 381 day Montgomery bus boycott that ended in a Supreme Court’s ruling.
That ruling declared segregation on transportation to be unconstitutional. The bus boycott had been led by a young pastor in charge of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The whole event brought Mrs. Parks, Dr. King and their cause to the attention of the world.
But although Ms. Parks’ act of defiance became an inspiration to freedom-loving people everywhere, her real strength may not be well-known.
Did you know for instance that she had served as secretary of the NAACP and later as an Adviser to the NAACP Youth Council, all the while trying hard to make a difference in the lives of African-Americans in the segregated south?
After the famous incident, she even went on to help African-American youths.
She had also tried several times in the past to register to vote, but was constantly turned down. Her mother had always told her to “Take advantage of the opportunities, no matter how few” but Rosa was dismayed to find out just how few they were.
Life was mainly a matter of survival. “We didn’t have any civil rights,” said Parks. “I remember going to sleep as a girl hearing the Klan ride at night and hearing a lynching and being afraid the house would burn down.”
And riding public buses wasn’t any easier either.
The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement had fallen out with bus drivers in the past. “I didn’t want to pay my fare and then go around the back door, because many times, even if you did that, you might not get on the bus at all. They’d probably shut the door, drive off, and leave you standing there.”
It’s not surprising, then, that being asked to give up her seat was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Yet becoming famous didn’t help much either. In fact it was to take its toll. Parks lost her job as a seamstress in a local department store and in 1957 she and her husband moved to Detroit, Michigan where she found another job.
In August 1994 Parks was attacked in her own home by a man wanting money from her, showing that hate and violence still had a long way to go.
Fittingly, however, when Mrs. Parks died in 2005 at the grand old age of 92 her casket was put outside the rotunda of the United States Capitol for two days. She was actually the first woman in American history to lie in state at the Capitol–an honor usually reserved for the Presidents of the United States.
Today visitors can visit the interactive Rosa Parks museum in Montgomery, Alabama and look at a recreated street scene and replica of the bus, along with a video that transports them to that historic day. The museum is housed in the old Empire Theater, where Mrs. Parks was arrested.
These days the statutes and ordinances that once enforced segregation are happily long gone and today’s Montgomery is a very different place–one that’s well worth visiting.
We will never forget, however, that it was Mrs. Parks’ courage to sit down for equal rights that sparked a reaction in others to stand up for theirs.