Celebrate Civil Rights For Rosa Parks Day

Photo: Gene Herrick/AP Photo.
December 1, 2015 is the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ historic moment of defiance, when the Black seamstress famously refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white passenger. Her act of passive resistance ended with Parks’ arrest and helped fuel the Montgomery bus boycott.

We all know the elementary school version of Rosa Parks. A quiet and unassuming middle-aged woman, Parks was riding the bus home from work one evening in Montgomery, AL, which, like almost every Southern city at the time, segregated its bus passengers by race. White passengers had first claim on all seats, and Black passengers got to sit only if there were free seats left over. When a white passenger asked Parks to give up her seat, she refused. She was coming home from work, and she was tired. The white passenger and the bus driver called the police and had Parks arrested.

In response, the city's Black community, led by Martin Luther King Jr., organized the famous Montgomery bus boycott. Thousands of people walked everywhere they needed to go — sometimes for miles — rather than take municipal transportation. The city, faced with bad publicity and the loss of huge sums of money from bus fares, buckled. A little more than a year after the incident, the city of Montgomery passed an ordinance affirming the right of Black people to sit where they chose on public buses.

It’s a narrative that many critics of the Black Lives Matter like to trot out as an example of peaceful, respectful movement toward change. But Rosa Parks was much more than someone who lived quietly until she hit a breaking point. Parks was actually an activist herself: She was a member of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, and she helped organize protests and actions against racial inequality both before and after her most famous moment. She counted as a personal hero Malcolm X, whose ethical standard that violence was sometimes necessary stands in stark contrast to the civil-rights movement’s historical reputation of nonviolent resistance.

Neither was that moment — unscripted though it was — truly a spontaneous bursting of the dams of tension that led to the Black community finally standing up and demanding equal treatment. The civil-rights movement of the 1950s, much like civil-rights movements today, was keenly aware of the power of public opinion. Parks was not the first to refuse to give up her seat, but she was the most sympathetic person to present to the public eye. Black leaders had been looking for a good test case to challenge the racist bus laws, but they couldn’t find a good central figure for the story — a teenage girl who had done the same as Parks a few months earlier was dismissed because she was unmarried and pregnant. Another young woman was set aside because of rumors her father was an alcoholic. In the middle-aged, proper-appearing Parks, they found their model. The public rallied and a movement was born.

Ironically, it wasn’t Parks’ lawsuit that finally ended segregation on Montgomery buses — the young women who were the less sympathetic to the public were more successful in the courts. In November of 1956, the Supreme Court decided in Browder v. Gayle that bus segregation was unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. And on December 21 of that year, Rosa Parks rode the bus again.
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