As a child of the sixties, and having communist parents, I grew up listening to Pete Seeger records. My favourite songs of his were those about the civil rights movement in the United States, such as ‘If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus’. It was from the liner notes of one of Pete’s albums that I first learnt about Rosa Parks.
If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus
On December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to obey bus driver James Blake’s order to give up her seat to make room for a white passenger. For this she was arrested. In Montgomery, the first four rows of bus seats were reserved for white people. Buses had ‘coloured’ sections for black people, who made up more than 75% of the bus system’s riders, generally in the rear of the bus. These sections were not fixed in size but were determined by the placement of a movable sign. Black people could sit in the middle rows, until the white section was full. Then they had to move to seats in the rear, stand, or, if there was no room, leave the bus. Black people weren’t allowed to sit across the aisle from white people. The driver could also move the ‘coloured’ section sign, or remove it altogether. If white people were already sitting in the front, black people could board to pay the fare, but then had to disembark and re-enter through the rear door. There were times when the bus departed before the black customers who had paid made it to the back entrance.
At the time of her defiant action, Rosa was secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and had recently attended the Highlander Folk School, a centre for workers’ rights and racial equality. In 1955, many people were moved by the brutal murder of a 14 year old boy, Emmett Till, after he was accused of flirting with a white woman. Only four days before she refused to give up her seat, Rosa attended a mass meeting in Montgomery which focused on Emmett’s death. Rosa detailed the motivation for her defiance in her autobiography, My Story: “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Her action was not the first of its kind. Irene Morgan in 1946, and Sarah Louise Keys in 1955, had won rulings before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Interstate Commerce Commission, respectively, in the area of interstate bus travel. Nine months before Rosa refused to give up her seat, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to move from her seat on the same bus system. In New York City, in 1854, Lizzie Jennings engaged in similar activity, leading to the desegregation of the horse cars and horse-drawn omnibuses of that city. None-the-less, Rosa’s act of defiance sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and she became an important symbol of the modern civil rights movement, as well as an international icon of resistance to racial segregation. Rosa also organised and collaborated with civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., helping to launch him to national prominence.
On the night of Rosa’s arrest, Jo Ann Robinson, head of the Women’s Political Council, printed and circulated a flyer throughout Montgomery’s black community which read: “If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or your daughter, or mother. This woman’s case will come up on Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don’t ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday. You can afford to stay out of school for one day if you have no other way to go except by bus. You can also afford to stay out of town for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don’t ride the bus at all on Monday.”
A few nights later a mass meeting was held to determine if the protest would continue, and attendees enthusiastically agreed. Instead of riding buses, many boycotters walked. A system of carpools was also organised, with car owners volunteering their vehicles or themselves driving people to various destinations. In the end, the black community’s boycott lasted for 381 days. Dozens of buses stood idle for months, severely damaging the bus company’s finances. The boycott ended when the Alabama and Montgomery laws requiring segregated buses were declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court. The bus boycott marked one of the largest and most successful mass movements against racial segregation. It sparked many other protests and would eventually inspire the bus boycott in the township of Alexandria, South Africa, which was one of the key events in the radicalisation of the black majority in that country.
Although widely honoured in later years for her action, Rosa also suffered for it, losing her job as a seamstress in a local department store. Rosa took the opportunity to travel and spoke extensively. She founded and raised funds for many civil rights and educational organisations. She co-founded the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation for college-bound high school seniors, to which she donated most of her speaker fees. In 1987 she co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, an institute that runs the “Pathways to Freedom” bus tours which introduce young people to important civil rights and Underground Railroad sites throughout the United States. When she died in 2005, tens of thousands of people viewed her casket and her memorial was broadcast on television.