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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Rosa Parks keeps her seat and launches the Civil Rights Movement

On the fifty-fifth anniversary of Rosa Parks’s historic decision not to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Donald Pennington asks:
... can we all have the courage of that one woman whom, though all alone, simply refused and stood her ground? When the moment of truth arrives in our lives, will we be as self-confident, defiant, and as beautiful as Rosa Parks?
In an essay in 1972 James Baldwin phrased a similar thought somewhat differently:
If Mrs. Parks had merely had a headache that day, and if the community had had no grievances, there would have been no bus boycott and we would never have heard of Martin Luther King.
Although the three riders next to her did give up their seats to white passengers, Rosa Parks refused. She chose to be arrested:
People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.
At the time of her arrest Parks had been a secretary for the NAACP in Montgomery, and E. D. Nixon, the local NAACP leader, quickly secured the services of a white lawyer to bail her out. King biographer Taylor Branch captures Nixon’s thoughts as he delivered her home:
Rosa Parks was without peer as a potential symbol for Montgomery’s Negroes—humble enough to be claimed by the common folk, and yet dignified enough in manner, speech, and dress to command the respect of the leading classes.
When Nixon asked her if she was willing to fight the case, Parks responded “If you think it will mean something to Montgomery and do some good, I’ll be happy to go along with it.” She was arrested on a Thursday. Over the weekend 35,000 handbills were distributed calling for a one-day bus boycott the following Monday, the day Parks was to be arraigned.

Martin Luther King Jr. later wrote of being called to the window by his wife early Monday morning:
As I approached the front window, Coretta pointed joyfully to a slowly moving bus. ‘Darling, it’s empty!’ I could hardly believe what I saw. I knew the South Jackson line, which ran past our house, carried more Negro passengers than any other line in Montgomery . . .
The Kings then knew the boycott would be a success. Later that day an assembly of local ministers created the Montgomery Improvement Association and elected twenty-six-year-old King its first president. That night thousands gathered in the Holt Street Baptist Church to decide whether the boycott should continue. This would be the occasion for King’s first historic speech:
Just the other day, just last Thursday to be exact, one of the finest citizens in Montgomery (Amen)—not one of the finest Negro citizens (That’s right), but one of the finest citizens in Montgomery—was taken from a bus (Yes) and carried to jail and arrested (Yes) because she refused to get up to give her seat to a white person. (Yes, that’s right) . . .
And you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. [Sustained applause]
Joe Abzell captured the aftermath in his report for The Montgomery Advertiser:
When the resolution on continuing the boycott of the bus was read, there came a wild whoop of delight. Many said they would never ride the bus again. . . The meeting was much like an old-fashioned revival with loud applause added. It proved beyond any doubt there was a discipline among Negroes that many whites had doubted. It was almost a military discipline combined with emotion.
The boycott lasted thirteen months and ended only when, in late December 1956, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s ruling outlawing segregation on Alabama buses.

Related LOA works: Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941-1963 (includes “The Rosa Parks Protest Meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church,” by Joe Abzell); American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton (includes Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech to the Montgomery Improvement Association, December 5, 1955)

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