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On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old African-American seamstress, refused to give up her seat to a white man while riding on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. For doing this, Parks was arrested and fined for breaking the laws of segregation. Rosa Parks' refusal to leave her seat sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and is considered the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Rosa Parks was born and raised in Alabama, a state known for its harsh segregation laws. In addition to separate drinking fountains, bathrooms, and schools for African-Americans and whites, there were separate rules regarding seating on city buses.
On buses in Montgomery, Alabama (the city in which Parks lived), the first rows of seats were reserved for whites only; while African-Americans, who paid the same ten cent fare as the whites, were required to find seats in the back. If all the seats were taken but another white passenger boarded the bus, then a row of African-American passengers sitting in the middle of the bus would be required to give up their seats, even if it meant they would have to stand.
In addition to the segregated seating on Montgomery city buses, African-Americans were often made to pay their bus fare at the front of the bus and then get off the bus and re-enter through the back door. It was not uncommon for bus drivers to drive off before the African-American passenger was able to get back on the bus.
Although African-Americans in Montgomery lived with segregation daily, these unfair policies on city buses were especially upsetting. Not only did African-Americans have to endure this treatment twice a day, every day, as they went to and from work, they knew that they, and not the whites, made up the majority of bus passengers. It was time for a change.
Rosa Parks Refuses to Leave Her Bus Seat
After Rosa Parks left work at the Montgomery Fair department store on Thursday, December 1, 1955, she boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus at Court Square to go home. At the time, she was thinking about a workshop she was helping organize and thus she was a bit distracted as she took a seat on the bus, which turned out to be in the row right behind the section reserved for whites.
At the next stop, the Empire Theater, a group of whites boarded the bus. There were still enough open seats in the rows reserved for whites for all but one of the new white passengers. The bus driver, James Blake, already known to Parks for his roughness and rudeness, said, "Let me have those front seats."
Rosa Parks and the other three African-Americans seated in her row didn't move. So Blake the bus driver said, "Y'all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats."
The man next to Parks stood up and Parks let him pass by her. The two women in the bench seat across from her also got up. Parks remained seated.
Although only one white passenger needed a seat, all four African-American passengers were required to stand up because a white person living in the segregated South would not sit in the same row as an African American.
Despite the hostile looks from the bus driver and the other passengers, Rosa Parks refused to get up. The driver told Parks, "Well, I'm going to have you arrested." And Parks responded, "You may do that."
Why Didn't Rosa Parks Stand Up?
At the time, bus drivers were allowed to carry guns in order to enforce the segregation laws. By refusing to give up her seat, Rosa Parks might have been grabbed or beaten. Instead, on this particular day, Blake the bus driver just stood outside the bus and waited for the police to arrive.
As they waited for the police to arrive, many of the other passengers got off the bus. Many of them wondered why Parks didn't just get up like the others had done.
Parks was willing to be arrested. However, it was not because she wanted to be involved in a lawsuit against the bus company, despite knowing that the NAACP was looking for the right plaintiff to do so. Parks was also not too old to get up nor too tired from a long day at work. Instead, Rosa Parks was just fed up with being mistreated. As she describes in her autobiography, "The only tired I was, was tired of giving in."
Rosa Parks Is Arrested
After waiting for a little while on the bus, two policemen came to arrest her. Parks asked one of them, "Why do you all push us around?" To which the policeman responded, "I don't know, but the law is the law and you're under arrest."
Parks was taken to City Hall where she was fingerprinted and photographed and then placed in a cell with two other women. She was released later that night on bail and was back at home by around 9:30 or 10 p.m.
While Rosa Parks was on her way to jail, news of her arrest circulated around the city. That night, E.D. Nixon, a friend of Parks as well as the president of the local chapter of the NAACP, asked Rosa Parks if she would be the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the bus company. She said yes.
Also that night, news of her arrest led to plans for a one-day boycott of the buses in Montgomery on Monday, December 5, 1955-the same day as Parks' trial.
Rosa Parks' trial lasted no more than thirty minutes and she was found guilty. She was fined $10 and an additional $4 for court costs.
The one-day boycott of the buses in Montgomery was so successful that it turned into a 381-day boycott, now called the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Montgomery Bus Boycott ended when the Supreme Court ruled that the bus segregation laws in Alabama were unconstitutional.
Parks, Rosa. "Rosa Parks: My Story." New York: Dial Books, 1992.