Looking Back at the Impact of Rosa Parks

One day, a simple act by one young woman helped set the wheels of the civil rights movement in motion. Although blacks have worked for their freedom and equality since they arrived in the United States, Rosa Parks's civil disobedience and arrest changed the focus of the movement, from solely relying on the courts to gain equality to rejecting and protesting their treatment in segregated states.

Staking a claim to her seat

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a seamstress from Montgomery, Alabama, got on a bus to head home from work. Though she hated the indignity of the seating arrangement, she went to the back of the bus, which was the only place where blacks were allowed to sit. However, blacks were required by law to give up their seats in the back if a white person asked.

In 1955, the back of the bus was considered the colored section, a term that was considered polite, if somewhat demeaning. Through subsequent decades, Negro, black, and African American became the preferred terms.

On that fateful day, when the front (white) section of the bus filled up, a white man asked Parks to give up her seat in the back, and she refused. Contrary to popular legend, she didn't refuse just because she was tired. Rather, she was sick and tired of being treated like a second-class citizen. When she refused to give up her seat, the white bus driver threatened to call the police, but she held her ground. The police arrived and Parks was escorted to the police station, where she was fingerprinted and then released on bail after talking to an NAACP lawyer.

Rosa Parks didn't become an activist because of this incident. By 1955, she was already working for civil rights. She was active in the Montgomery Voters League, an organization established to help blacks pass the literacy tests designed to keep them from registering to vote. She was also involved in the NAACP, and she had already recognized and begun to protest the indignity of segregation. Whenever possible, she avoided elevators and buses, preferring to walk or climb stairs rather than be treated as inferior.

Rosa Parks wasn't the first African American to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. But, by the time of her arrest, anger and resentment about their humiliating treatment roused blacks to action.

Boycotting the buses

The day after Rosa Parks's arrest, the word went out among Montgomery's black community. The Women's Political Council decided to protest her mistreatment by organizing a bus boycott to begin on December 5, the day of Parks's trial. However, the plan wasn't to keep the boycott small — Martin Luther King Jr. and others in Montgomery's black community formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to continue boycotting the buses until the segregation laws were changed. The main objective of the boycott was to end segregation in the Montgomery public transportation system and also to hire black bus drivers in Montgomery.

Although the MIA expected the boycott to be a success, it exceeded their wildest expectations. Almost all of Montgomery's black community avoided the buses, walking, taking cabs, organizing carpools, and even riding mules to get to where they were going. Often, whites refused to be without their domestic workers and drove them back and forth to work.

The boycott lasted for 382 days, costing the bus company a great deal of money, but the city refused to give in. Boycott leaders filed a federal lawsuit against Montgomery's segregation laws, claiming that the city violated the 14th Amendment. On June 4, 1956, a federal court ruled that the segregation laws were unconstitutional, but Montgomery county lawyers appealed. The boycott continued until November 13, when the Supreme Court declared the Montgomery segregation laws illegal.

During the boycott, the authorities made numerous arrests. At one point, the police arrested groups of blacks waiting for carpool pickups. On February 21, 1956, a grand jury declared the boycott illegal, and 115 boycott leaders were arrested.

After the Supreme Court decision was officially received in Montgomery, the boycott ended, and the buses of Montgomery, Alabama, were no longer segregated. However, Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her seat, followed by the yearlong bus boycott, had far-reaching results. Blacks in other southern cities realized that if protest worked in Montgomery, it could work elsewhere, and they began to protest segregation in their own towns. Also, because of his role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. gained national prominence and rose to the forefront of the civil rights movement.

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