Wednesday, December 01, 2010

55 years ago today - Rosa Parks took a bus ride that changed America

Fifty five years ago today on December 1, 1955 a white man boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The bus driver, James F. Blake, instructed some of the African-American bus riders to move toward the back of the bus to make room for the white passenger. Rosa Parks refused and for this she was arrested.

A year-long bus boycott followed - lead in part by Martin Luther King, Jr. It ended a year later when the federal court system declared the segregation of public buses to be unconstitutional.

What is not commonly known is that Ms. Parks was very well prepared for her confrontation. She had previously taken a class at a local NAACP chapter on the art of passive resistance, and, in her own words, "was tired of giving in." At the time of her action, she was secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and had recently attended the Highlander Folk School, a Tennessee center for workers' rights and racial equality.

All that aside, her action was taken as a private citizen and showed extraordinary bravery and commitment in a time that did not reward non-conformity.

Even more interesting are the anecdotes Dan Lewis points out in his blog (with thanks to Wikipedia):
Parks' autobiography (cover above) recounts that in 1943, over a decade prior to the event's whose anniversary we mark today, Ms. Parks (then 30 years old) boarded a Montgomery bus through the front door -- at the time something forbidden for an African-American. The bus driver insisted that Parks, who had already paid, exit the bus and re-enter through the rear door. As Parks recounted, when she did not move quickly enough, the driver grabbed her sleeve as if to push her off the bus. She (intentionally) dropped her purse and sat down in a whites-only seat to pick it up. According to Parks, the driver motioned as if he were going to hit her; she stated that she'd get off the bus, staving off attack. She exited but the bus departed before she re-entered. (Some accounts suggest that she did not try and re-enter; others state that the driver sped off before she had an opportunity to do so. In either case, it was not uncommon for buses to disembark before African-Americans were afforded the opportunity to re-enter via the rear door.) Parks had battled with the driver; the driver had won, at the expense of Parks' dignity.

That driver? James F. Blake.

Parks vowed to never again ride a bus he was driving and, apparently, many times waited for a subsequent bus upon noticing that Blake was driving the first to arrive. However, fifty-five years ago today, she boarded the bus without paying attention to who was behind the wheel. So when Blake ordered her to cede her seat to a white traveler, he also resurrected the memory of a transgression a dozen years prior -- and Parks, historically, stood her ground against a nemesis from her past.

Historically speaking, December 1 is a very interesting day. On today, through the past few decades, a lot of interesting things have happened: the first artificial heart transplant, the Vietnam draft lottery begins, the AIDS virus is officially recognized, and a lot, lot more -- including, of course, Rosa Parks' famous refusal to move toward the back of the bus.

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