Saturday 4 June 2016

Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott: leading from the front

Rosa Parks with Martin Luther King in 1955

Rosa Parks with Martin Luther King in 1955

This year is the 60th anniversary of the birth of the US Civil Rights Movement. Unity magazine is marking the anniversary by examining the movement’s key moments. In this third article, we look at Rosa Parks, whose refusal to move to the back of the bus sparked the massive Montgomery Bus Boycott

US Civil Rights Movement part 3: The Montgomery Bus Boycott
From Unity, anti-racist and anti-fascist magazine Autumn 2015 / issue 13

Other articles in the US Civil Rights Movement series

This is the story of a woman, Rosa Parks, who in order to stand up for her rights had to sit down. She was born Rosa Louise McCauley on 4 February 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama. Her grandparents were both former slaves who believed strongly in racial equality.

Racism, prejudice and discrimination were rife in Alabama. Black and white people were segregated in every sphere of life. Rosa went to a segregated school, and afterwards worked in a segregated shirt factory in the city of Montgomery. Public facilities such as drinking fountains were segregated, and marked “Whites only” or “Coloured only”—the fountains for African Americans. Even buses were segregated, with black people required to move to the back of the bus so white people could sit at the front. This racist segregation was legal, under the so-called “Jim Crow” laws of the Southern states.

And there was always the threat of the murderous Ku Klux Klan. In her autobiography, My Story, Rosa recalls when her grandfather stood in front of their house with a shotgun while Ku Klux Klan members marched down the street.

In 1932, Rosa met and married Raymond Parks, a barber and a member of the NAACP civil rights organisation. She joined the Montgomery branch in 1943, serving as its youth leader and secretary to the local NAACP president, ED Nixon.

But it was her refusal to give up her seat at the front of a Montgomery bus on 1 December 1955 that turned the local NAACP activist into one of the key figures of the Civil Rights Movement.

Douglas Brinkley, one of Rosa’s biographers, takes up the story: “After a long day’s work Rosa boarded a bus for home. She took a seat in the first of several rows designated for ‘coloured’ passengers. As the bus Rosa was riding continued on its route, it began to fill with white passengers.

“The driver stopped the bus and moved the sign separating the two sections back one row and asked four black passengers to give up their seats. Three complied, but Rosa refused and remained seated. The driver demanded, ‘Why don’t you stand up?’ to which Rosa replied, ‘I don’t think I should have to stand up.’ The driver called the police and had her arrested.”

Later, Rosa recalled that her refusal wasn’t because she was physically tired, but that she was “tired of giving in”. She was taken to the police station, where she was charged and released on bail.

On the evening that Rosa Parks was arrested, ED Nixon began forming plans to organise a boycott of Montgomery’s city buses. Adverts were placed in local papers and leaflets were distributed in black neighbourhoods. The African American community was asked to boycott the city buses on Monday 5 December 1955—the day of Rosa’s trial.

In her autobiography Rosa remembered: “At the time I was arrested I had no idea it would turn into this. It was just a day like any other day. The only thing that made it significant was that the masses of the people joined in.”

On the morning of 5 December, a group of leaders from the African American community gathered at the Mount Zion Church. There they set up the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and elected a young minister from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to lead it. His name was Martin Luther King.

When Rosa arrived at the courthouse for her trial that day she was greeted by a crowd of around 500 supporters. Rosa was found guilty of sitting in an “undesignated bus seat” and was fined $10, as well as a $4 court fee—a substantial sum in those days.

The one-day bus boycott was a huge success: the vast majority of Montgomery’s black population refused to use the buses. Some shared cars, while others took cabs, but most of the estimated 40,000 African American community walked to work—some as far as 20 miles. The boycott was so successful the MIA argued to continue it until the buses were desegregated. Some white people also supported the boycott, either by refusing to take the bus themselves or by driving black people to work in their cars.

White supremacists used violence to try to break the boycott. Black churches were burned, and both King’s and Nixon’s homes were destroyed by bombs. Rosa herself received dozens of death threats.

In addition to the bus boycott, the MIA also took legal action against the Montgomery authorities. They filed a lawsuit challenging segregation on the buses. In June 1956, the district court declared the racial segregation laws unconstitutional. The city authorities appealed against the court’s decision, but on 13 November 1956, the US Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling.

The bus company—facing financial ruin after the court case—agreed to lift its enforcement of segregation on public buses, and the boycott officially ended on 20 December 1956. The 381-day boycott was one of the largest and most successful mass movements against racial segregation in history.

When it ended, the first person to get on the bus on 21 December was Rosa Parks. She sat on the front seat. That front-seat ride was symbolic of a much bigger achievement. Shortly before her death in 2005, Rosa spoke to a group of students, explaining, “I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free… so other people would be also free.”



    • I am Rosa Parks by Brad Meltzer (Dial) Picture book format. Part of the Ordinary People Change the World series.
    • Rosa Parks: My Story by Rosa Parks and James Haskins (Puffin Books) For older children and young adults
    • The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis (Beacon Press)
    • Rosa Parks by Douglas G Brinkley (Penguin Books)


    • Rosa Parks’ Story (DVD)

Other articles in the Civil Rights Movement series

Part 1: Brown v Board of Education: God bless the child

Part 2: Emmett Till: The ‘little nobody’ who shook the world

Part 3: The Montgomery Bus Boycott

Part 4: Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins

Part 5: The Freedom Rides

Part 6: The Birmingham Campaign & The March on Washington

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