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Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement

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    Rosa Parks had spent all day working and running errands on Dec. 1, 1955. She was tired, and her “feet hurt” (Phillips 36). She had to take the bus home. When she boarded, all the seats in the back, where African American people were allowed to sit, were taken. There were seats in the front, but African Americans weren’t allowed to sit in them. She settled for a seat in the middle. African Americans could sit in those seats as long as there weren’t any whites who were standing. Soon more and more white people boarded the bus until all the seats in the front were taken. The driver asked some people in Park’s row to move to the back (they would have to stand) and everyone got up to move except for Rosa Parks. Parks told the driver “no.” She wasn’t going to stand and he said that he was going to have her arrested. (Culture and Change)

    I didn't feel very good about being told to stand up and not have a seat. I felt I had a right to stay where I was. That was why I told the driver I was not going to stand. I believed that he would arrest me. I did it because I wanted this particular driver to know that we were being treated unfairly as individuals and as a people—Rosa Parks (Culture and Change).

    After she was arrested E.D. Nixon “a friend a Civil Rights activist posted her bail” (Culture and Change). “…shortly before taking her now famous bus ride, she attended a workshop on civil disobedience at the integrated Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn., an incubator for civil rights activism” (Kulman 49).

    Rosa Parks, however, was no ordinary woman. For the previous 12 years she had been a civil rights activist with the NAACP and heavily involved in voter registration drives. She was well known in Montgomery’s African American community. And when she called home from jail, word of her arrest spread around town like wildfire.

    Nixon said that he was willing to try to get her case all the way to the Supreme Court. Parks hesitated a bit but said that it was okay to do so. (Phillips).

    That was all Nixon needed to hear. The next morning he telephoned every black leader in town to let them know what had happened, to inform them that there was already a spontaneously generated boycott of city buses taking place, and to call an emergency meeting for that evening. (Phillips 36)

    At that meeting it was decided that African American people would boycott the buses for a day. This was done to show support for Parks. On the same day as that boycott, they decided to meet to discuss future plans and determine if the people would support a longer boycott. (Phillips 37). The boycott was used as an economic ploy because African Americans knew that the bus system depended a great deal on their money. Martin Luther King, Jr. was chosen to lead the boycott (Culture and Change).

    News of the boycott quickly spread throughout the area. Parks was on the evening news. She later went to court and was fined $14. Meanwhile, African Americans shunned the bus “to the relief and surprise” of the activists (Culture and Change). People chose to walk, carpool or ride bikes to work (Culture and Change). Before they would ride buses again, the African American people had three requests. They didn’t want to have to give up their seats for white passengers on the buses. They wanted to be treated with respect when they rode on the bus, and they wanted African American people to be able to drive buses. Though the demands are modest, city commissioners and the bus company still refused to budge. Instead of weakening the boycotters' determination, the city's refusal only pushed the protesters to demand an end to bus segregation altogether. Around 75 percent of the bus system’s money came from black riders and those people weren’t riding the buses any more (Culture and Change).

    Someone came up with the idea of contacting all the taxi cab companies in town to work out some sort of a deal. Sensing a possible windfall in business, eight of Montgomery’s taxi businesses agreed to transport people for the same fare as that charged on city buses—10 cents (Phillips 41)

    The city refused to comply with the wishes of the African American people so they had to reduce the number of buses that served the city and raise the price to ride. The price to ride the bus went from 10 cents to 15 cents (Culture and Change). To make matters worse for the city, because African Americans weren’t riding the bus, they began shopping closer to home. Downtown storeowners began losing money.

    The police commissioner warned all taxi cab companies that they had better charge the legal minimum of 45 cents per rider or they would be fired. That move effectively eliminated the use of taxis as a form of cheap transportation (Phillips 45).

    Eventually whites began harassing the African Americans, trying to force them to ride the bus (Culture and Change).

    The harassment grew worse and worse. “…city policemen began harassing and dispersing groups of people waiting at pickup points for the car pool. And then one day, insurance policies on the MIA’s station wagons were unexpectedly and mysteriously canceled—which prevented the vehicles from being used in the car pool transport system” (Phillips 45). Eventually, King’s house was bombed. His wife, baby daughter and a friend were inside. Luckily no one was hurt. But the supporters grew stronger; they kept clear heads and refused to retaliate. A year later, on Nov. 13, 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that the bus segregation law was unconstitutional (Culture and Change).

    Two years later, in January 1957, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference began to continue with the Civil Rights Movement. In September that same year, nine students tried to attend school in Little Rock Arkansas. The Governor refused to let the students attend. He ordered the state national guard to monitor the school and keep the students from attending. Eisenhower ended up calling the National Guard and paratroopers to allow the children to attend school. The school was previously all white and was supposed to be desegregated on Sept. 2. It wasn’t officially desegregated until Sept. 25. (Haney) On Feb. 1, 1960. Students from North Carolina A&T University sat at the lunch counter of a Woolworth’s and refused to move. They were allowed to stay at the counter but their actions sparked similar nonviolent actions throughout the United States (Haney).

    In May 1961 CORE, The Congress of Racial Equality, decided to see if the highways were actually desegregated. They sent a group of freedom riders on a bus trip. There was trouble two weeks later when a mob set a bus of freedom fighters on fire. But the rides continued. “At the end of the summer, more than 1,000 volunteers, black and white, have participated” (Haney). On June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s field secretary was murdered. Later that summer, on Aug. 28, 1963, more than 250,000 people united in Washington at the Lincoln Memorial for a Freedom March. It was at that time that Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I have a Dream” speech (Haney). But a month later, in September, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Church in Birmingham where Civil Rights Movement meetings were held. Four little girls who were attending Sunday school were killed (Haney).

    The summer of 1964 was called Freedom Summer. The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a network of civil rights groups that includes CORE and SNCC, launches a massive effort to register black voters during what becomes known as the Freedom Summer. It also sends delegates to the Democratic National Convention to protest—and attempt to unseat—the official all-white Mississippi contingent. (Haney)

    On July 2, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, making segregation and workplace discrimination illegal (Haney). In February 21, 1965, activist Malcom X was killed. Many believed that Muslims killed him. He’d recently left the organization (Haney).

    Blacks begin a march to Montgomery in support of voting rights but are stopped at the Pettus Bridge by a police blockade. Fifty marchers are hospitalized after police use tear gas, whips, and clubs against them. The incident is dubbed "Bloody Sunday" by the media. (Haney).

    On Aug. 10, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which got rid of literacy tests and other requirements that made it difficult for southern African Americans to vote (Haney). And three years later, on April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot to death “on a balcony outside of his hotel room” (Haney). A few days later, on April 11, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which made it illegal to discriminating on the sale, rental, or leasing of housing (Haney). On April 20, 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that it was legal to bus children to different districts to achieve integration.

    On many fronts the battle for civil rights continues. One could ponder the state that African Americans would have been in had Rosa Parks not taken the first step. Someone else may have ignited the Civil Rights Movement, but it’s hard to determine that for sure. Rosa Parks was the right person at the right time. Other people had said “no” to moving from their seats on the bus but they didn’t fit the mold of a quiet petite seamstress who was well-loved by the community. Parks didn’t know that she would become the catalyst to a chain of events that would launch the Civil Rights Movement. Some critics claim that the events were planned.

    Accounts from Parks, herself, state that although she had knowledge of non-violent resistance tactics, she hadn’t been set-up as the person to begin the bus boycott. Whether she had or had not been a plant by the NAACP, she was the one who gave other people the courage to stand up and quietly but firmly say “no.” She was the person who lured Martin Luther King, Jr. to Montgomery to help plan the boycott. An account about King’s participation in the boycott says that he didn’t take a role in the forefront in the planning stages. He was president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, but he wasn’t really a leader at that point. He would often confer with other people and find out what they thought and have them take leading roles.

    “Naturally, tentative at first, he followed the lead of others, worked in groups, and made no major policy decisions without the input and approval of other leaders in the MIA” (Phillips).

    But the entire bus boycott gave King the opportunity. The timing was right. So, had Parks not given up her seat on that bus in Montgomery in 1955, the movement probably would not have been launched at that time. Everyone was waiting for the right person. Parks was right on time.

    Parks has remained dedicated to civil rights since retiring at age 75. In 1987, she cofounded a mentoring organization for teenagers, the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development in Detroit, where she still lives. Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, sums up her act of defiance this way: "When the history of the civil rights movement is written 100 years from now, there are only going to be two significant names–Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks made a courageous decision and started the civil rights movement. Dr. King took it from there (Kulman 49).

    Works Cited

    • Kulman, Linda and Enrich, David. “Rosa Parks.” US News and World Report. 27 Aug. 2001: 49-50.
    • Phillips, Donald T. Martin Luther King, Jr. On Leadership: Inspiration and Wisdom for Challenging Times” New York: Warner Books, 1999.
    • Haney, Elissa. “Civil Rights Timeline”

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