Rosa Parks

In March 1955, in Montgomery, Ala., a 15-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin boarded a city bus. Claudette was coming home from school and was carrying several textbooks so she could study for her exams. She sat down and began the ride home.

Soon the bus driver demanded that Claudette get up from her seat so a white man could sit in it. Claudette refused. The bus driver waved down a police car. The police arrested Claudette, handcuffed her and took her to jail.

Claudette’s family called Rosa Parks, who helped raise money to get the young girl out of jail and provide her with a lawyer.

Officials in Montgomery routinely treated black citizens this way; black passengers often were dragged off buses and taken to jail.

Several months after Claudette’s experience on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, Rosa Parks boarded one.

      On a chilly afternoon a black woman named Rosa Parks boarded a bus after a long and tiring day. She deposited a dime in the fare box and took an empty seat behind the painted line that marked the “colored section” of the bus. It was December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Ala.
      The bus rumbled along Cleveland Avenue and quickly began to fill up. After two stops all the seats in both the white and black sections were taken, and several black people stood in the rear aisle. At the next stop two white men climbed on board. The bus driver turned and called out to the seated black people at the back of the bus, “Give them your seats.”
Three black passengers rose obediently, moved farther to the rear, and stood. They followed the custom observed on all Montgomery buses at the time. Not only were blacks obliged to sit in the rear of the bus, but, when the seats in the white section became filled, the blacks had to surrender their seats to white passengers. Furthermore, the law held that white passengers must not sit next to, or even across from, black passengers. So four blacks — two on each side of the aisle — had to rise to permit to whites to sit down. However, on this memorable afternoon, Rosa Parks refused to budge.
The driver twisted in his seat, “You, there,” he said, pointing to Mrs. Parks. “You heard me, move to the rear.”
Rosa Parks sat, stony-faced, saying nothing. She had never dreamed of herself as a heroine. She was a 42-year-old seamstress who looked forward to spending a joyous Christmas with her family. Her lap was covered with boxes containing Christmas gifts. She was weary, and her legs ached after an entire day of shopping. Also, she was tired of suffering painful indignities on the buses of her hometown.
The bus driver cursed and jerked the hand brake. Red-faced with anger, he marched toward the seated passenger.
“I told you to move, and I mean it.”
“No, I won’t,” Rosa Parks said softly.
The driver hailed a police car, and Rosa Parks was arrested.
It is difficult to imagine the day-to-day humiliation Southern blacks had to endure at that time. Public water fountains were marked “whites” and “colored.” Rest rooms were built in fours — two for blacks and two for whites. Public schools were segregated. On the railroads, blacks rode in one car while whites rode in another. They also waited for their trains in separate waiting rooms and ate in separate restaurants. Signs over laundries in the Deep South announced, “We wash for white people only.” A South Carolina law even forbade black and white cotton-mill workers from gazing out the same window.
Of all the indignities suffered by Montgomery blacks, none was more galling than their daily bus rides. On many routes white passengers were a rarity, but seats in the front half of the bus had to remain empty for them nonetheless. Meanwhile, during the rush hours, blacks stood crowded in the back of the bus gazing at rows of empty seats.
Like electricity, word of Rosa Parks’ arrest spread through Montgomery’s black community. She was not the first black person to defy the city’s rules on the buses. However, she knew an influential leader in the black community named E.D. Nixon. To take advantage of black anger toward the bus system, Nixon formulated a plan and hurried it into action. Mrs. Parks was arrested on a Friday. Nixon proposed that all blacks boycott the city’s buses on the following Monday.
The one-day boycott was a huge success. So Nixon suggested that it continue until the bus company agreed to certain demands of the black community. Martin Luther King Jr., a new minister in town, became the boycott’s spokesperson.
The Montgomery boycott was the first mass attack on the old segregationist South.

Excerpted from “The Story of The Montgomery Bus Boycott,” by R. Conrad Stein (Chicago: Children’s Press), pp. 5-15. Copyright © 1986 by Regensteiner Publishing Enterprises, Inc. Reprinted by permission.