On December 1, 1955, Montgomery, Alabama, seamstress and activist Rosa Parks was arrested, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the most well-known campaigns of the civil rights movement.
Less well known is that Ms. Parks’s work for racial justice long preceded her arrest for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. As Jeanne Theoharis details in today’s Washington Post, Ms. Parks was very active in the local chapter of the NAACP, having joined as the chapter’s only woman member in 1943, and served as both the youth leader and secretary.
Ms. Parks frequently traveled throughout Alabama to interview Black people who had suffered racial terror, violence, or other injustice. In 1944, she investigated an Abbeville, Alabama, gang-rape of a young Black woman and joined with other civil rights activists in the area to launch an unsuccessful campaign to have the white men responsible prosecuted for the assault.
On the evening of December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks began her bus ride home from work sitting in the “colored section.” Montgomery’s segregated bus service designated separate seating areas for Black and white passengers; during peak operating hours, if the white seating area became full, the bus driver could expand its boundaries and request that African Americans stand to relinquish their seats to whites. While Blacks were not legally obligated to comply, city bus drivers were notorious for their hostile treatment of Black riders and their requests were rarely refused.
As more white passengers boarded, the bus driver asked Ms. Parks and three other seated African Americans to give up their seats to whites. Ms. Parks refused and was eventually arrested. She later recalled that she had refused to stand, not because she was physically tired but because she was tired of giving in: “I had been pushed around all my life and felt at this moment that I couldn’t take it any more.” On the night of her arrest, local activists began organizing what would become the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Facing death threats and barred from steady employment after the boycott’s successful end, Ms. Parks and her family moved from Montgomery to Detroit in 1957. In writings that are part of the recently opened Rosa Parks Collection at the Library of Congress, Ms. Parks described Detroit as “the promised land that wasn’t.” There, as she had done all her life in the South, she continued to fight for racial and social justice.
In the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, she advocated for reform in the criminal justice system, school and housing inequality, jobs and welfare policy, and foreign policy. In the 1990s, on a paper bag that is now preserved in the collection, she wrote, “The Struggle Continues…The Struggle Continues…The Struggle Continues.”
Myriad events are scheduled this week to mark the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. People of all ages gathered in downtown Montgomery this morning for a Walk of Courage to commemorate the anniversary. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivered a keynote address at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. organized the boycott in the church basement, as part of an event highlighting the role that civil rights lawyers played in the boycott and the civil rights movement. Tuesday evening the Montgomery Improvement Association will unveil a marker commemorating the spot where Rosa Parks was arrested, and the bus on which Ms. Parks was riding will be on special display by the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery.