Interview with Rosa Parks
Digital History ID 1142
It 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 and a veteran of the civil rights movement since the early 1930s, she 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 to get up and make room for whites. Three did, but Mrs. Parks did not. She was arrested under a city ordinance requiring segregated buses and 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. But her act of defiance 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.
But with the charismatic leadership of a 26-year-old minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the boycott gained national attention. 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.
Nor was she 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, 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, get off, and reenter 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 take a stand against segregation.
In later life, her views ranged between the non-violence of Martin Luther King and the militance 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 illustrates how one person's spontaneous act of courage and defiance can alter the course of history.
This interview was taken on June 2, 1995 by the Academy of Achievement.
What people inspired you as a child?
My family, I would say, my mother, and my maternal grandparents. I grew up with them.
My mother was a teacher in a little school, and she believed in freedom and equality for people, and did not have the notion that we were supposed to live as we did, under legally enforced racial segregation. She didn't believe in it.
How did she impart that to you?
Just by her attitude and the way she talked. We were human beings and we should be treated as such.
She instilled that feeling in you.
It was just the way I grew up. Yes, she did. Of course, my grandfather had the same ideas, as well as my grandmother.
What was their background?
Both of them were born before the emancipation, before slavery ended. And they suffered a lot, as children they were in slavery and of course, after slavery was not that much better, but I guess it was some better. They were farmers in a rural area in Alabama.
They must have suffered.
Yes, especially my grandfather.
Was there a teacher that influenced you? My mother was a teacher and I went to the same school where she was teaching. My very first teacher was Miss Sally Hill, and I liked her very much. In fact, I liked school when I was very young, in spite of the fact that it was a one-room school for students all ages, from the very young to teens, as long as they went to school. It was only a short term for us, five months every year, instead of the regular nine months every year.
You still flourished in this school, despite all that.
I liked to read books anyway, and my mother taught me to read even before I began school.
What books did you like to read?
Mostly the little stories that they had in the school books, and fairy tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood, and those stories, just what they had for young children.
Do you think reading is important?
Yes, it's very important. And I always liked to read, especially historic books. I still do like to read.
What was it like in Montgomery when you were growing up?
Back in Montgomery during my growing up there, it was completely legally enforced racial segregation, and of course, I struggled against it for a long time. I felt that it was not right to be deprived of freedom when we were living in the Home of the Brave and Land of the Free. Of course, when I refused to stand up, on the orders of the bus driver, for a white passenger to take the seat, and I was not sitting in the front of the bus, as many people have said, and neither was my feet hurting, as many people have said. But I made up my mind that I would not give in any longer to legally-imposed racial segregation and of course my arrest brought about the protests for more than a year. And in doing so, Dr. Martin Luther King became prominent because he was the leader of our protests along with many other people. And I'm very glad that this experience I had then brought about a movement that triggered across the United States and in other places.
Could you tell us exactly what happened that day on that Montgomery bus?
I was arrested on December 1st, 1955 for refusing to stand up on the order of the bus driver, after the white seats had been occupied in the front. And of course, I was not in the front of the bus as many people have written and spoken that I was -- that I got on the bus and took the front seat, but I did not. I took a seat that was just back of where the white people were sitting, in fact, the last seat. A man was next to the window, and I took an aisle seat and there were two women across. We went on undisturbed until about the second or third stop when some white people boarded the bus and left one man standing. And when the driver noticed him standing, he told us to stand up and let him have those seats. He referred to them as front seats. And when the other three people -- after some hesitancy -- stood up, he wanted to know if I was going to stand up, and I was not. And he told me he would have me arrested. And I told him he may do that. And of course, he did.
He didn't move the bus any further than where we were, and went out of the bus. Other people got off -- didn't any white people get off -- but several of the black people got off.
Two policemen came on the bus and one asked me if the driver had told me to stand and I said yes. And he wanted to know why I didn't stand, and I told him I didn't think I should have to stand up. And then I asked him, why did they push us around? And he said, and I quote him, "I don't know, but the law is the law and you are under arrest." And with that, I got off the bus, under arrest.
Did they take you down to the police station?
Yes. A policeman wanted the driver to swear out a warrant, if he was willing, and he told him that he would sign a warrant when he finished his trip and delivered his passengers, and he would come straight down to the City Hall to sign a warrant against me.
Did he do that?
Yes, he did.
Did the public response begin immediately?
Actually, it began as soon as it was announced. It was put in the paper that I had been arrested. Mr. E.D. Nixon was the legal redress chairman of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, and he made a number of calls during the night, called a number of ministers. I was arrested on a Thursday evening, and on Friday evening they had the meeting at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King was the pastor. A number of citizens came and I told them the story, and it became news about my being arrested. My trial was December 5th, when they found me guilty. The lawyers Fred Gray and Charles Langford, who represented me, filed an appeal and, of course, I didn't pay any fine. We set a meeting at the Holt Street Baptist Church on the evening of December 5th, because December 5th was the day the people stayed off in large numbers and did not ride the bus. When they found out that one day's protest had kept people off the bus, it came to a vote and, unanimously, it was decided that they would not ride the buses anymore until changes for the better were made.
When you refused to stand up, did you have a sense of anger at having to do it?
I don't remember feeling that anger, but I did feel determined to take this as an opportunity to let it be known that I did not want to be treated in that manner and that people have endured it far too long. However, I did not have at the moment of my arrest any idea of how the people would react.
And since they reacted favorably, I was willing to go with that. We formed what was known as the Montgomery Improvement Association, on the afternoon of December 5th. Dr. Martin Luther King became very prominent in this movement, so he was chosen as a spokesman and the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association.
As I look back on those days, it's just like a dream. The only thing that bothered me was that we waited so long to make this protest and to let it be known wherever we go that all of us should be free and equal and have all opportunities that others should have.
What personal characteristics do you think are most important to accomplish something? I think it's important to believe in yourself and when you feel like you have the right idea, to stay with it. And of course, it all depends upon the cooperation of the people around. People were very cooperative in getting off the buses. And from that, of course, we went on to other things. I, along with Mrs. Field, who was here with me, organized the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development. Raymond, my husband--he is now deceased--was another person who inspired me, because he believed in freedom and equality himself.
You were married during the bus incident.
Yes, I was.
How old were you?
When I was arrested, I was 43 years old. There were so many needs for us to continue to work for freedom, because I didn't think that we should have to be treated the way were, just for the sake of white supremacy, because it is designed to make them feel superior, and us feel inferior. That was the whole plan of racially enforced segregation.
What would you like to tell us about your life since the bus boycott?
I would have to take longer than a minute to give my whole synopsis of my life, but I want to let you know that all of us should be free and have equal opportunity and that is what I'm trying to instill and encourage and inspire young people to reach their highest potential.
Tell us about the goals of the Parks Institute.
We work with young people, from the ages of 11 to 17. Our main program is the Pathways to Freedom. And we'll be going from Memphis, Tennessee through ten other states, and Washington, DC, and to Canada. It began July 13th and ends August 8th. We hope to take as many young people and their chaperons as possible throughout these areas, and stop and have workshops and programs. They'll be traveling in buses, and we hope that will inspire and give them a sense of history and also to encourage them to be concerned about their self and history and motivated to reach their highest potential.
We always encourage them to have a spiritual awareness, because I feel that with the spirit within and our belief in ourselves and our faith in God that we will overcome many obstacles that we could not with negative attitudes. I want to always be concerned with being positive, and them being positive and believing in themselves, and believing that they should be good citizens and an asset to our country and for the world. And I believe in peace too, and not violence.
What has the American Dream meant to you?
I think the American Dream should be to have a good life, and to live well, and to be a good citizen. I think that should apply to all of us. That it is the land of the free and the home of the brave, and I believe it should be just that for all people. They can think of themselves as human beings and they'll enjoy the blessings of the freedom of this country.
Are we moving as quickly as you might like in that direction?
We still have a long way to go, we still have many obstacles and many challenges to face. It's far from perfect, and it may never be, but I think as long as we do the best we can to improve conditions, then people will be benefited.
You don't get negative about the negative things.
No, I don't. I try to not think of those things that we cannot control, but I think if we continue to work with positive attitudes, conditions will be better for more people.
Tell me about your husband.
He believed in freedom and equality and all the things that would improve conditions.
He was an inspiration to you.
Yes, he was.
When did he die?
In August of 1977.
What advice would you give to a young person who wants to make a difference?
The advice I would give any young person is, first of all, to rid themselves of prejudice against other people and to be concerned about what they can do to help others. And of course, to get a good education, and take advantage of the opportunities that they have. In fact, there are more opportunities today than when I was young. And whatever they do, to think positively and be concerned about other people, to think in terms of them being able to not succumb to many of the temptations, especially the use of drugs and substances that will destroy the physical health, as well as mental health.
What would you say to a kid who's in trouble now?
The reason we start with them so young is to try to get them a good family life, before they get into that area. Of course there are those who maybe have strayed away, and I would certainly advise them to find some means of helping themselves, even if they've gotten into some problems.
Family is important to you.
Yes, it is, very important. Of course, we have so many broken homes now. Young people need some means of being encouraged and to try to find some role models, people in school, in church, and other organizations. They need to be organized to work together, instead of being so scattered about and not having any positive outlook on life.
Did you feel Dr. King had a special gift?
Well, when I first met him it was before I was arrested. I met him in August of 1955, when he came to be the guest speaker at an NAACP meeting and I was secretary. I was very impressed with his delivery as a speaker and, of course, his genuine friendliness as a person. And his attitude, of course, was to work and do whatever he could in the community for the church to make a difference in the way of life we had at that time. And I was really impressed by his leadership, because he seemed to be a very genuine and very concerned person, and, I thought, a real Christian.
Did it surprise you when he became a national hero?
No, not really, because I just felt that he filled the position so well. He was the type of person that people really gravitated towards and they seemed to like him personally, as well as his leadership.
A warm person?
Yes, he was.
Additional information: Interview taken on June 2, 1995 by the Academy of Achievement.
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