On a regular work day in 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks, 42 years old, boarded the same bus she rode home from work every day and sat down tired after a full day working as a seamstress in a department store. Although the route to her house was not a long one, before they arrived there, she had set off a controversy that would go on to spark the most significant events of the Civil Rights Movement and catapult a young reverend by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. into the spotlight.
Rosa Parks, considered a hero for becoming a role model for African Americans fighting for equality during the civil rights era, stated she was unaware of what her refusal to move to the back of the bus would lead to. She simply believed she was asking for “fair” treatment having followed the designation for where blacks could sit on the bus she rode. Specifically she was admired as a hero for her willingness to quietly accept the consequences of others acts without anger or hatred and for helping to create the situation that garnered Reverend Martin Luther King the attention of a Nation and enabled him to lead the Civil Rights Movement using peaceful means.
When asked about how such a quiet, respected woman could set off such a firestorm, she replied: “At the time I was arrested, I had no idea it would turn into this. It was just a day like any other day. The only thing that made it significant was that the masses of the people joined in” (Parks, 2014).
Parks, was raised by her mother and grandparents after her parents divorced. Her grandparents were both former slaves who fought strongly for racial equality. She first understood about discrimination and gained the desire to end it from her grandparents. She stated: “My desires were to be free as soon as I learned that there had been slavery of human beings” (Parks, 2014).
On the day she was arrested, Rosa Parks was seated in the eleventh row on the bus. The first ten rows were reserved for whites only and blacks were allowed to sit in seats in rows after those. When more whites boarded the bus and there weren’t enough seats for them, the bus driver moved the sign indicating the beginning of seats for black passengers back further. He told the four black people seated in Rosa Parks row to get up and give the white passengers their seats. Three did so, but Rosa Parks decided she was tired of being pushed around by white people who were treating her and other black people unfairly. She did not attempt to start a confrontation, merely sat quietly after refusing to move since she was in a seat not reserved for whites.
The bus driven called the police Rosa Parks was arrested and charged with refusing to follow the orders of a bus driver. However, while bus drivers were given the power of police officers to enforce segregation on city buses, they could only request black passengers seated in seats after the rows reserved for white passengers not order them to move. So refusing to move from the eleventh row was actually not a criminal offense while refusing to follow the States segregation laws was. Therefore the law related to her alleged offense was murky at best, and she wasn’t charged with the one offense that could have been on the books as a law at the time. None-the-less she was jailed and remained there for about a day after which the head of the NAACP bailed her out.
Starting the day she was arrested, the head of the NAACP also began to organize a bus boycott in Montgomery Alabama where the bus incident had taken place. Ads were placed in Newspapers and notices were distributed in black neighborhoods telling blacks to boycott the buses. On the day of Rosa Park’s trial, blacks were encouraged to stay home from school or work or to take cabs or walk if they had to go somewhere. The same day those organizing the boycott met to discuss other strategies for the boycott and to determine if other leadership would be beneficial. They elected a young Martin Luther King, Jr. to head the boycott efforts.
Rosa Park’s case was used as an opportunity to create real change by rallying around a cause involving this respected member of the black community. The support for Rosa Parks was demonstrated by more than 500 people who gathered to root her on when she arrived at the courthouse. Although found guilty, Rosa Parks trial served as the catalyst for more than 40,000 African American citizens of Montgomery Alabama and neighboring counties to take cabs or walk to work, some walking over 20 miles. Over the next few months, the boycott did its job, with buses sitting empty until the transit company was all but bankrupt. When the 381 day boycott was over, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr had emerged as a leader and the public face of the Civil Rights Movement. It was during the boycott’s that he was afforded the platform to display his signature oratory skills that drew millions to the cause.
Rosa Parks was found guilty of violating a local ordinance which prohibited blacks from boycotting although she was not involved in the organized boycotts and hadn’t planned ahead to refuse to give up her seat if asked. When the famous event occurred she simply had enough of being treated like third rate citizen. She stated: “Our mistreatment was just not right, and I was tired of it. . . I knew someone had to take the first step and I made up my mind not to move” (Parks, 2014).
After Rosa Parks was convicted her lawyer filed an appeal stating the law that allowed her to be convicted was unconstitutional. While it was being decided and was tied up in the court system, another case made history. In Browder v. Gayle, a three judge panel ruled that segregation of buses in Alabama was, in fact, unconstitutional. Segregationists pushed back hard, and many influential black leader’s homes and businesses were burned, including that of the Reverend King. However, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling, and while initially local politicians and leaders in Montgomery Alabama refused to follow the ruling, a subsequent ruling gave them the choice of ending segregation on buses or be arrested and jailed themselves. Rosa Parks continued to work towards equality for all American Citizens, and helped Civil Rights Leaders in gaining the right to vote for black people and ending segregation in the South. For her efforts, she became known as the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.
After witnessing the efficacy of Rosa Park’s almost silent act of defiance, as well as the pacifist strategies of Mahatma Ghandi, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. realized how much could be accomplished through non-violent tactics. He stated:
Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time. The need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love (King, 1964).
While Martin Luther King, Jr. was considered a hero, if not the hero, of the Civil Rights Movement, it was Rosa Parks who provided him with the example of how best to address the discrimination and inequality of blacks in the South and all over the country. Although Reverend King’s oratory skills and charisma drew followers from far and wide, Rosa Parks was the one who provided the impetus that allowed him to come to the forefront of the publics attention. Without Rosa Parks, there would likely have been no bus boycott, at least not at that time since before her action in Montgomery AL, blacks were hesitant to do anything that might get them arrested. Seeing this unassuming, quiet, respectable woman calmly refuse to act in a way that allowed further discrimination against her, and her willingness to be jailed for her convictions, provided the example they needed to recognize the importance of acting to effect change. Without the bus boycott it cannot be determined when Martin Luther King, Jr would have emerged as a leader for the black community and ultimately the public face of the Civil Rights Movement (Kennedy, 1989).
Kennedy, R. (1989). Martin Luther King's Constitution: A Legal History of the Montgomery Bus
Boycott. Yale Law Journal, 999-1067. https://www.alabar.org/public/bus/RKennedy.pdf
King Jr, M. L. (1964). Nobel Prize acceptance speech. A testament of hope: The essential
writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Rosa Louise McCauley Parks. (2014). The Biography.com website. Retrieved Nov 23, 2014,