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The Arrest of Rosa Parks (1 December 1955)

THE ARREST OF ROSA PARKS (1 December 1955)

The 1 December 1955 refusal of Rosa Louise McCauley Parks (1913) to surrender her seat to a white man on a municipal bus would have far-reaching implications, not only for her fellow citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, but for all Americans as well. A seamstress and secretary of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Parks, with this simple act of defiance, touched off the year-long Montgomery bus boycott which would become a model for future nonviolent protests and marked the emergence of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. as a civil rights leader of national prominence. Fired from her job due to her notoriety, Parks relocated to Detroit in 1957 and resumed her activities in the civil rights movement, of which she became an enduring and much-loved figure. Her memoirs appeared in 1992, and in 1999, Parks was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest national honor bestowed by the Congress upon civilians.

Laura M. Miller,
Vanderbilt University

See also Civil Rights Movement ; Segregation .

Having to take a certain section [on a bus] because of your race was humiliating, but having to stand up because a particular driver wanted to keep a white person from having to stand was, to my mind, most inhumane.

More than seventy-five, between eighty-five and I think ninety, percent of the patronage of the buses were black people, because more white people could own and drive their own cars than blacks.

I happened to be the secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP as well as the NAACP Youth Council adviser. Many cases did come to my attention that nothing came out of 'cause the person that was abused would be too intimidated to sign an affidavit, or to make a statement. Over the years, I had had my own problems with the bus drivers. In fact, some did tell me not to ride their buses if I felt that I was too important to go to the back door to get on. One had evicted me from the bus in 1943, which did not cause anything more than just a passing glance.

On December 1, 1955, I had finished my day's work as a tailor's assistant in the Montgomery Fair department store and I was on my way home. There was one vacant seat on the Cleveland Avenue bus, which I took, alongside a man and two women across the aisle. There were still a few vacant seats in the white section in the front, of course. We went to the next stop without being disturbed. On the third, the front seats were occupied and this one man, a white man, was standing. The driver asked us to stand up and let him have those seats, and when none of us moved at his first words, he said, "You all make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats." And the man who was sitting next to the window stood up, and I made room for him to pass by me. The two women across the aisle stood up and moved out.

When the driver 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 call the police and have you arrested."

I said, "You may do that."

He did get off the bus, and I still stayed where I was. Two policemen came on the bus. One of the policemen asked me if the bus driver had asked me to stand and I said yes.

He said, "Why don't you stand up?"

And I asked him, "Why do you push us around?"

He said, "I do not know, but the law is the law and you're under arrest."

SOURCE: Parks, Rosa. "The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 19551956: 'Like a Revival Starting'." In Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s. By Henry Hampton, Steve Fayer, and Sarah Flynn. New York: Bantam Books, 1990.

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