• Rosa Parks: 1913-2005: The power of no
Rosa Parks: 1913-2005: The power of no
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Monday, Oct. 2
Late one December afternoon in 1955, Rosa Parks left her job as a seamstress at the Montgomery Fair department store to get on the crowded bus home.
Twenty-two African-Americans were seated in the back of that Montgomery, Ala., city bus, and 14 whites in the front.
When the driver, J.P. Blake, saw that a white man was forced to stand, he yelled out for four black passengers in the row just behind the whites to surrender their seats. “You better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats,” he said, according to “Parting the Waters,” part of Taylor Branch’s monumental history of the civil rights movement
Three blacks got up and moved to the back of the bus. Ms. Parks refused. She said she was in the “no-man’s land” between the white and black seats. The driver had her arrested. Ms. Parks was hauled off to jail to be booked and fingerprinted.
Civil rights leaders immediately realized that in Ms. Parks, they had the perfect symbol for their cause, someone “humble enough to be claimed by the common folk, and yet dignified enough in manner, speech, and dress to command the respect of the leader classes,” as Mr. Branch wrote.
Ms. Parks’ husband pleaded with her not to fight. “The white folks will kill you, Rosa,” he said. But Ms. Parks decided to go ahead. “If you think it will mean something to Montgomery and do some good, I’ll be happy to go along with it,” she told the movement’s leaders.
Before the next dawn, civil rights leaders in Montgomery had conceived of a daring challenge to segregation — a bus boycott.
A 26-year-old minister in town, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., hesitated briefly, then joined other ministers and became the leader of the boycott. He and his wife, Coretta, remembered peering out the window of their home on the first day of the boycott to watch the buses on the South Jackson line, normally filled with maids on their way to white neighborhoods, pass by empty.
Ms. Parks was convicted and fined $14. That night Dr. King told a mass meeting that he was glad Ms. Parks had been the one arrested “for nobody can doubt the bound-less outreach of her integrity. No one can doubt the height of her character, nobody can doubt the depth of her Christian commitment.”
Then he electrified the audience that spilled out the door onto the street. “You know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tried of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression … we are determined here in Montgomery — to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream!”
The boycott that was supposed to last for a day lasted for a year. During that time Dr. King was arrested twice and his home bombed. But before the year was out, the legal challenge to the segregated buses in Montgomery had resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ended Alabama’s segregated bus systems.
Rosa Parks, who changed the world by saying no, died Monday at the age of 92. Not too many years ago, she recalled her action on that December day in 1955: “I was just trying to let them know how I felt about being treated as a human being.”