It was a rainy
afternoon in Montgomery, Alabama.
Metropolitan bus driver James F. Blake pulled the Cleveland Street bus
up to the stop, where waited a young black woman. The woman got aboard, and
paid her fare. She started to walk up the aisle to have a seat. But that was a
violation of the rules. According to an early municipal ordinance, a black
person in Montgomery had to leave the bus after paying the fare, then re-enter the
bus through the rear entrance. Of course
enforcement of the arcane law was all up to the white bus drivers.
Blake admonished the
woman, and made her disembark. She did, but before she could get back aboard,
Blake drove off, leaving the woman standing in the rain. She would either have
to wait for the next bus, or walk home. There is no indication she was
reimbursed for her ten cents fare.
The black woman was
one Rosa McCauley Parks. Yes, the
Rosa Parks. This incident occurred in 1943, some 12 years before her dramatic
ride into history.
Blake, a World War II
veteran, was merely doing his job.
Rosa Parks was then
about 30 years old. She had been born in poverty in Montgomery, and was well
versed in such injustice, especially around buses. And white people. She
remembered walking miles to the “negro school” as white kids rode by in buses.
In another incident, a ten year old white kid sought to attack her younger
brother, but Rosa, brandishing a brick, dissuaded the young racist and he ran
In 1932, at age 19,
Rosa McCauley married local barber Raymond Parks. He was no mere barber. He was
a curious, well educated local activist. He encouraged Rosa to attend college,
and become as curious as he was. And after several tries, she registered to
Was the 1943 incident
in the rain the culmination of this early education, the impetus that got Rosa
involved in the local NAACP? She indeed became secretary of the chapter, and
got involved in protests of early civil rights outrages, particularly that of
the tragedy of Emmett Till in the summer of 1955. Till, a teenager who had been
living in Chicago was visiting family in southern Mississippi when he was
accused of flirting with a white woman. Till’s vicious murder and the
subsequent trial (and acquittal) of his kidnappers and murderers particularly
galvanized Black outrage of Southern injustices, one of the most pivotal
moments in the history of the movement.
And a pivotal moment
in the life of Rosa Parks, for she was thinking of Emmett Till when she refused
to move from her seat on the bus.
The local civil rights
activists in Montgomery Alabama, in particular local NAACP chairman, ironically
named Nixon, and a new young minister named Martin L. King, had been looking
for ways to fight the abuses visited upon Rosa Parks and thousands of other
municipal bus riders. 75% of bus
ridership were black citizens, yet they had to endure the Jim Crow rules. Over time in the early 1950’s, two women had
refused to give up their seats, but, given their questionable lifestyles, were
not considered good candidates for legal remedies that might end the
On December 1st,
1955, Rosa Parks, now 42 years of age, had spent the day working as a
seamstress at a local department store. She boarded the Cleveland Street bus
around 6 PM. She sat in the second row on the right. Next to her, and across
the aisle from her, sat three other black passengers. Movable signage in the
bus indicated that she was seated in the “colored” section of the bus.
A few minutes later,
in front of the Emporium Theatre, the bus stopped and picked up a number of
white riders. There were no seats for them in the front, and some were forced
These white customers
standing, while several black folks sat was too much for the driver to abide. So
the driver moved the “colored section” sign to one row behind Rosa Parks’ row.
He insisted she and the other three black riders relocate, to accommodate the
new white customers.
Three of the black
passengers briefly protested, but dutifully got up and moved.
Rosa Parks refused. “I
thought of Emmett Till, and I knew I could not move. I had had enough. The
empowerment I felt covered me like a warm quilt on a winter’s day.” The bus
driver gave Parks fair warning, and would call the police otherwise. Rosa Parks
said that was his right.
And so the driver and
Rosa Parks made their fateful decisions.
Oh, and the driver?
James F. Blake – the same driver who had coldly collected Rosa Parks’ fare in
1943, forced her to disembark in the rain, and drove off without her. Parks had
vowed never to enter a bus driven by Blake again, and kept to that vow for over
12 years. But on this day, she did not see who was driving.
So perhaps Blake’s
earlier asinine behavior had some part in Parks’ defiance. And so goes fate and
history. Heroes and villains. Very often it is a villain who strikes the spark
in awesome moments in history. And very often a soft spoken, regular citizen is
thrust into the role of hero.
Such was the little
drama enacted on that bus on that day in that city in 1955.
Rosa Parks was
arrested by local officers for violation of the municipal code. She asked them
why they were pushing people around. They of course said they were simply
enforcing the law. Rosa Parks was resolute, conquering the very real fears that
existed in that era, making her small protest more than a little significant
and heroic. People died for less in those places in that era.
In Parks, Nixon, King
and others had found the case they were looking for: a gentle woman, a good
citizen, with a good family being “pushed around” by absurdity of Jim Crow. Eldridge
Cleaver put it, “Somewhere in the
universe a gear in the machinery had
shifted” because of what Rosa Parks did. Her refusal to move was the catalyst for the
first great stride in what we now refer to as the Civil Rights Movement: the
Montgomery bus boycott.
Parks was bailed out
by Mr. Nixon, and on the days before her brief trial, a meeting was held among
activists, including Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King. They spread the
word that the day of her trial blacks should skip school or work if necessary,
or walk, or carpool.
Just stay off the
And they did so. Then
it was decided to continue the process. Defying death threats, and the usual
intimidations of life in the deep Jim Crow south, the black citizens of
Montgomery boycotted the buses for days, weeks, months – a year. Rosa Parks
worked as a dispatcher to coordinate carpools and jitney-style cabs (charging
only 10 cents – the same as the bus fare). And of course, many opted to walk –
some as much as 20 miles to work. But they stayed off the buses.
The Montgomery bus
company nearly went bankrupt. In mid December of 1956, the rules were changed.
There were no more “colored sections” on Montgomery buses. Other boycotts followed
in other cities.
There were beatings
and threats. For safety’s sake, Rosa, her husband Ray and mother moved to
Detroit, where they had relatives.
Thus emboldened, there
was to follow the desegregation of high schools, colleges and lunch counters.
There was voter registration. Many of the protestors, marchers and workers and
lawyers were white, many were beaten, and many were killed.
But many earned their
This is what Rosa
Parks’ refusal to move wrought. There were, and remain, many agitators in the
cause of social justice with more strident attitudes, soaring oratory, and
But it also takes
people like her - people like us - ordinary citizens, to “shift the machinery”.
This is what makes the story of Rosa Parks so heartening, hopeful and
significant. Her name has been invoked by no less than Nelson Mandela. Many
events are referred to as “a Rosa Parks moment”.
What is interesting is
that, yes, she did work for the NAACP, but her bus ride was unrelated – her
moment of protest was undertaken quietly after work as a seamstress and had no
clue the infamous driver James Blake would undertake to move the “colored only”
sign. It was others who picked up the baton and turned her protest into
history. Her very ordinariness is what has made her story so compelling and so
Parks did not seek the
spotlight after her moment in time. She worked for many years in the office of Rep.
John Conyers in Michigan. She cared for her husband and her mother who both
died of cancer in the 1970’s. She was bestowed great honors over the years and
revered as a civil rights icon.
2013 would have been
the 100th anniversary of her birth.
2012 would have been the 100th anniversary of the birth of James F.
Blake, the Montgomery bus driver who had insisted that Rosa Parks move from her
seat. He was the same guy who made her get out of his bus in the rain 12 years
before. As often happens in history, evil sets the tone and, ironically, in so
doing, sparks an act of courage which eventually rights the wrong forever.
“People think I was
tired because I was old,” said Rosa Parks many years later. “I wasn’t old then.
And I was no more tired than I was any other time after a long day at work. The
only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles (and suburbs)... attended USC... I have written for a lot of TV shows, won 4 Emmy awards. Bobby's "Funny is Money" radio show returns somewhere in January of 2011 after a 3 1/2 year run on www.shokusradio.com