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The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement Previous Next
Digital History ID 3320


This event was the symbolic beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks, an Alabama seamstress, refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white man. A volunteer secretary for the Montgomery branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement since the early 1930s, Parks was returning from work at a department store on Dec. 1, 1955. The bus filled up, whites in the front and blacks in the back. The driver ordered four blacks in the front of the black section of the bus to get up and make room for whites. Three did, but Mrs. Parks did not. She was arrested under a city ordinance that mandated segregated buses and was fined $10 plus $4 court costs.

At the time that she refused to give up her seat, only 31 African Americans in Montgomery were registered to vote. Her act of defiance, however, shook the foundations of segregation.

Her story is filled with myths. For one thing, her refusal to give up her seat was not the product of a premeditated NAACP plan. Rather, it was a spontaneous decision, she later explained. She had been abused and humiliated one time too many:

Just having paid for a seat and riding for only a couple of blocks and then having to stand was too much. These other persons had got on the bus after I did. It meant that I didn't have a right to do anything but get on the bus, give them my fare, and then be pushed wherever they wanted me.... There had to be a stopping place, and this seemed to have been the place for me to stop being pushed around and to find out what human rights I had, if any.

The local NAACP had been searching for years for a woman to defy the Montgomery segregation law. But the two women who had violated the law earlier in the year had been vulnerable to character attacks in court and in the white press. Rosa Parks didn't drink, smoke, or curse. She had a steady job and went to church each week. She was soft-spoken and had a serene demeanor. Her impeccable moral character made her the ideal person to contest the case in court.

With support from the local NAACP, a boycott was organized to show support for Parks. Montgomery's African Americans shared rides, took taxis, or walked to work. Mrs. Parks and many others were fired. There were bombings, beatings, and lawsuits. In February 1956, Parks and a hundred others were charged with conspiracy.

When the boycott started, community leaders arranged for 18 black taxis in the city to carry passengers for the same 10 cent fare as a bus. When the city passed an ordinance requiring a minimum 45 cent fare, 150 people volunteered their cars.

The boycott gained national attention with the charismatic leadership of a 26-year-old minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. In November 1956, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that threw out the Montgomery bus ordinance. After 381 days, the Montgomery bus boycott was over.

Rosa Parks was not simply a seamstress. She had been active for years as a volunteer secretary to the Montgomery NAACP and its leader, civil rights crusader E.D. Nixon. The daughter of an itinerant carpenter and a school teacher, Rosa Louise McCauley had been born in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1913. She attended a one-room school and then went on to the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, a vocational training institution. Her education was cut short by her mother's illness, and she went to work at a textile plant, where she became a seamstress.

In 1932, she married Raymond Parks, a barber who was active in the struggle for voting rights for African Americans. In 1943, she was evicted from a city bus for boarding through the front door; black passengers were forced to pay at the front of the bus, get off, and re-enter through the rear. In 1955, she had attended a demonstration on desegregation and civil disobedience at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. She later said that her training at the school helped her to take a stand against segregation.

In later life, her views ranged between the non-violence of Martin Luther King and the militancy of Malcolm X. "I don't believe in gradualism," she told an interviewer, "or that whatever is to be done for the better should take forever to do." By holding on to her seat, Rosa Parks illustrated how one person's spontaneous act of courage and defiance can alter the course of history.

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