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In 1955 a petite 42 year old black woman named Rosa Parks lived in Montgomery, Alabama. One evening, Rosa was riding in the colored section at the back of the bus. Once all the seats were filled at the front of the bus for the white people, the driver said, "Gimmie those front seats!" When Rosa refused, the driver said, "Iíll have you arrested." Rosa still refused and the police were called. Two police officers approached Rosa. She said, "Why do you push us around?" One officer responded, "The law is the law and we are arresting you." This event helped start the end to the segregation laws in the south.
Learning about Segregation
Rosa Louise McCauley was born in Tuskegee, Alabama on February 4, 1913. Rosa attended the black school in Pine Level. It was a one room school house just a short distance from her home. They had fifty to sixty first through sixth grade children in the school with only one teacher. It wasnít as nice as the white school in town. It was heated by wood that the older boys chopped and carried into the school. They did not have glass windowpanes, only wood shutters over the windows in the walls. The white school that they built in the town was made of brick and had real glass windows and heat and running water. This new white school was built with the taxes that the Whites and the Blacks all paid. The black school did not receive any tax money and all the work done on it and the heating was taken care of by the parents of the black children. This was the first time Rosa saw that Blacks and Whites were not treated equally.
Starting with the seventh grade, Rosa had to go to school in Montgomery, Alabama. In Montgomery, Rosa became more aware of the segregation between the Blacks and the Whites. Rosa would walk to school on most days, except in bad weather when she would take the streetcar. She had to sit in the back of the streetcar because that is where Blacks were supposed to sit. She also noticed the different drinking fountains for the black and the white people. She often wondered whether water in the white fountains tasted better than the water in the black fountains.
At the age of sixteen Rosa had just started the eleventh grade. Her grandmother, whom she had lived with most of her life, became ill and Rosa had to quit school to take care of her. Her grandmother died shortly after that. Rosa was not happy about dropping out of school, but she realized it was her responsibility to take care of her grandmother, and then her mother when she became ill.
When her mother got better, one of Rosaís friends introduced her to Raymond Parks. At first Rosa did not like him, but after a while she started to date him and eventually married him in 1932. Parks, as Raymond was known to his friends, was an activist. He was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that helped hire lawyers and fight charges brought against black people in the court system. He was also interested in and willing to work for things that improved life for black people. Parks encouraged Rosa to return to school and complete her education. In 1933, at the age of 20, Rosa did just that.
Working for the NAACP
Rosa got a job as the secretary at the local NAACP branch in Montgomery. She worked directly for the head of the local branch. One of her main jobs was to write out every case that came into the office about discrimination that was done against the black people. She also kept the national organization informed of everything happening in Montgomery.
There were even more violent incidents against Blacks after World War II, even against the black soldiers who fought for the United States. When Rosaís brother, Sylvester, came back from the war, he was thrust back into segregation. He found it very hard to adjust to the white people who treated him differently. He didnít think that civil rights for blacks would be in the same condition as before the war, or even worse. During World War II, the black soldiers would have the less appealing jobs such as maintenance or caring for severely wounded soldiers and were very seldom promoted. After World War II a lot of the black veterans came back hoping they could become a registered voter, but most of them were turned down because of the segregation in the south.
Rosa tried several times to register to vote. Blacks were not allowed to register as easily as white people. They had to take a literacy test before they were given their voterís registration. They also were only given certain days to register, usually at times when they were at work. The black people also needed a white person to vouch for them, to say that they were worthy to vote. Another requirement was that they own property. The first time she was turned down, the voter registration worker said that Rosa flunked the literacy test. Rosa knew better than that and on her second try she wrote down all the answers she had written on the 21 question test so she could fight not getting a card the second time, but she didnít need to worry because she passed the second test and received her card.
Fighting Segregation on Buses
Segregation was most visible on the buses in Montgomery. Blacks were told to ride in the back ten rows of the buses. The first ten rows were for white people and the center ten rows were whatever the bus driver wanted them to be. Many times the Blacks had to enter the front door to pay their toll, exit the front door and go in the back door of the bus. The bus drivers would quite often drive away while the Blacks were walking to the back door. Rosa had been very busy at work on December 1, 1955. She was preparing for a seminar for the NAACP and for elections. When it was time for her to go home, she got on the bus and sat in the first row of seats for black people. At the next stop, several white people got on the bus and the driver told the four black people in the front black row to stand up and give their seats to the white people. The other three Blacks got up, but Rosa did not. The bus driver called the police and they ended up removing her from the bus and taking her to jail.
The NAACP realized that Rosaís case against the bus company was the perfect test case to use to fight segregation laws in Montgomery and all over the United States. Rosa, after speaking with her husband and mother, decided she would be the plaintiff in the bus segregation case. Her lawyers, Charles Langford and Fred Gray, tried to enter a plea of "Not Guilty" for her but they did not intend to try to defend her, because only in higher courts could there be any changes in the segregation laws. Rosa was found guilty, fined $14.00 in all, $4 for court fees and $10 for losing in local courts.
On the day of Rosaís court case, Reverend Abernathy and some other local ministers formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). They formed the MIA because the NAACP was a relatively weak organization in Alabama. They elected Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as president of the MIA and he was chosen to be the person who would meet with the city people and work out an agreement to make the buses equal.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
When they heard of Rosaís arrest, the leaders of the Womenís Political Council agreed to call for a boycott of the buses in Montgomery starting on December 5, 1955, the day of Rosaís trial. They sent a flyer home with the local school children to spread the word, telling the black people to not ride the buses to school or work. Local black churches also helped get the word out about the boycott of the buses. The black owned cab companies agreed to make stops along the bus routes to help as much as they could.
On the day of Rosaís trial, most black people had finally had enough with the segregation on the buses. They walked, shared rides, or took the black owned cabs to work and school. The buses in Montgomery were practically empty. Little did the people in Montgomery know that the bus boycott would last a year. A system was put in place by the Blacks for transportation. There were 20 private cars and 14 station wagons in place to transport people. There were 32 pick-up and transfer points and they ran from 5:30 in the morning to 12:30 at night. They transported about 30,000 people a day. The employers of the Blacks also transported their own employees.
In early February of 1956, Rosaís lawyers filed suit in the United States District Court saying that bus segregation was unconstitutional. Her appeal on the original charges was upheld in the lower courts. The new court case was a way for Rosaís lawyers to show they meant to take this case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In June of 1956, the District Court ruled 2-1 in favor ending segregation on the buses, but the city commissioners appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.
On November 13, 1956 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation on the Montgomery buses was unconstitutional. Dr. King called a meeting of the MIA to make the announcement that they had won. He did not tell people to go back on the buses yet. The written order from the Supreme Court did not come to them until December 20, 1956. The following day, the boycotters returned to the buses. Things did not go smoothly at first. The bus company set curfews on the buses, shutting them down at 5:00 PM. White people fired guns at the buses, and they tried to form a Whites only bus line, but that didnít work. Eventually things died down and everything started running smoothly. The boycott in Montgomery inspired other cities to start their own boycotts of segregated buses.
Rosa, with her husband and mother, moved to Detroit, Michigan shortly after the bus boycott in Montgomery was over. She is still living there today. Rosa is well known for refusing to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, but has been very active all her life in the Civil Rights Movement. She is still active today at the age of 89.
Rosa Parks Timeline
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