Friday, July 14, 2017

Rosa Parks and the boycott

Rosa Parks had a large involvement in the Montgomery bus boycott movement. Before the boycott, oppression against black bus drivers was overt and abundant. In 1900, Montgomery had passed a city ordinance to segregate bus passengers by race. Conductors were empowered to assign seats to achieve that goal. The law back then wanted no passenger would be required to move up or give up their seat and stand if the bus was crowded and no other seats were available. Over time and by custom, however, Montgomery bus drivers adopted the practice of requiring black riders to move when there were no white only seats left. The first four rows of seats on each Montgomery bus were reserved for whites. Buses had “colored” sections for black people generally in the rear of the bus. Although, black people were more than 75% of the ridership. The sections were not fixed but were determined by the placement of a movable sign. Black people would sit in the middle rows until the white section was filled. If more whites needed seats, black people were to move to seats in the rear, stand, or, if there was no room leave the bus. Black people could not sit across the aisle in the same row as white people. The driver could move the "colored" section sign, or remove it altogether. If white people were already sitting in the front, black people had to board at the front to pay the fare, then disembark and reenter through the rear door. This was an unfair system. Black Americans opposed this injustice. Rosa Parks have said that, “My resisting being mistreated on the bus did not begin with that particular arrest. I did a lot of walking in Montgomery.” By 1943 on one day, Rosa Parks boarded a bus and paid the fare. She then moved to her seat but driver James F. Blake told her to follow city rules and enter the bus again from the back door. When Parks exited the vehicle, Blake drove off without her. Parks waited for the next bus, determined never to ride with Blake again.

After working all day, Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue Bus. This was a General Motors Old Look bus. It belonged to the Montgomery City Lines. At around 6 pm., Thursday, December 1, 1955, in downtown Montgomery, she paid her fare and sat in an empty seat in the first row of the back seats. These seats were reserved for black Americans and they were in the “colored” section. Near the middle of the bus, her row was directly behind the ten seats reserved for white passengers. Initially, she didn’t notice that the bus driver was the same man was James F. Blake. Blake was the one who had left her in the rain in 1943.  As the bus traveled along its regular route, all of the white only seats in the bus filled up. The bus reached the third stop in front of the Empire Theater. Several white passengers boarded. Blake noticed that two or three white passengers were standing, as the front of the bus had filled to capacity. He moved the “colored” section sign behind Parks and demanded that four black people give up their seats in the middle section, so that the white passengers could sit. Years later, in recalling the events of the day, Parks said, "When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination to cover my body like a quilt on a winter night." By Parks' account, Blake said, "Y'all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats."  Three of them complied. Parks said, "The driver wanted us to stand up, the four of us. We didn't move at the beginning, but he says, 'Let me have these seats.' And the other three people moved, but I didn't."  The black man sitting next to her gave up his seat. Rosa Parks moved, but toward the window seat, she didn’t get up to move to the redesignated colored section.

Parks later said about being asked to move to the rear of the bus that, “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn't go back." Blake said, "Why don't you stand up?" Parks responded, "I don't think I should have to stand up." Blake called the police to arrest Parks. When recalling the incident for Eyes on the Prize, a 1987 public television series on the Civil Rights Movement, Parks said, "When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, 'No, I'm not.' And he said, 'Well, if you don't stand up, I'm going to have to call the police and have you arrested.' I said, 'You may do that.'" During a 1956 radio interview with Sydney Rogers in West Oakland several months after her arrest, Parks said she had decided, "I would have to know for once and for all what rights I had as a human being and a citizen." In her autobiography, My Story she said: “…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…” When Parks refused to give up her seat, a police officer arrested her. As the officer took her away, she recalled that she asked, "Why do you push us around?" She remembered him saying, "I don't know, but the law's the law, and you're under arrest." She later said, "I only knew that, as I was being arrested, that it was the very last time that I would ever ride in humiliation of this kind..."  Parks was charged with a violation of Chapter 6, Section 11 segregation law of the Montgomery City code, although technically she had not taken a white-only seat; she had been in a colored section. Edgar Nixon, president of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and leader of the Pullman Porters Union, and her friend Clifford Durr bailed Parks out of jail that evening.

Afterwards, the boycott happened. Nixon talked with Jo Ann Robinson. Jo Ann Robinson was an Alabama State College professor. She was also a member of the Women’s Political Council (WPC). They talked about the Parks case. Robinson believed that it was important to seize the opportunity and stayed up all night mimeographing over 35,000 handbills announcing a bus boycott. The Women’s Political Council was the first group to officially endorse the boycott. On Sunday, December 4, 1955, plans for the Montgomery Bus Boycott were announced at black churches in the area. There was a front page article in the Montgomery Advertiser. That newspaper helped to spread the word. At a church rally that night, those attending agreed unanimously to continue the boycott until they were treated with the level of courtesy that they expected, until black drivers were hired and until the seating in the middle of the bus was handled on a first come basis. The next day, Rosa Parks was tried on charges of disorderly conduct and violating a local ordinance. The trial lasted 30 minutes. After being found guilty and fined $10, plus $4 in court costs, Parks appealed her conviction and formally challenged the legality of racial segregation. In a 1992 interview with National Public Radio's Lynn Neary, Parks recalled: “…I did not want to be mistreated, I did not want to be deprived of a seat that I had paid for. It was just time... there was opportunity for me to take a stand to express the way I felt about being treated in that manner. I had not planned to get arrested. I had plenty to do without having to end up in jail. But when I had to face that decision, I didn't hesitate to do so because I felt that we had endured that too long. The more we gave in, the more we complied with that kind of treatment, the more oppressive it became…” On the day of Parks' trial — December 5, 1955 — the WPC distributed the 35,000 leaflets. The handbill read, “We are ... asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial ... You can afford to stay out of school for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don't ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off the buses Monday.” It rained that day. The black community preserved in the boycott. Some rode in carpools, while others traveled in black operated cabs that charged the same fare as the bus, 10 cents. Most of the remainder of the 40,000 black commuters walked. Some walked as far as 20 miles (30 km). That evening after the success of the one day boycott, a group of 16 to 18 people gathered at the Mt. Zion AME Zion Church to discuss boycott strategies. At the time, Parks was introduced, but not asked to speak. She received a standing ovation and calls from the crowd for her to speak. When she asked if she should say something, the reply was “Why, you’ve said enough.”

The group agreed that a new organization was needed to lead the boycott effort if it were to continue. Rev. Ralph Abernathy suggested the name of Montgomery Improvement Association or the MIA. The name was adopted and the MIA was created. Its members elected as their president Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was a newcomer to Montgomery, who was young and mostly unknown minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. That Monday night, 50 leaders of the African-American community gathered to discuss actions to respond to Parks' arrest. Edgar Nixon, the president of the NAACP, said, "My God, look what segregation has put in my hands!" Parks was considered the ideal plaintiff for a test case against city and state segregation laws, as she was seen as a responsible, mature woman with a good reputation. She was securely married and employed, was regarded as possessing a quiet and dignified demeanor, and was politically savvy. King said that Parks was regarded as "one of the finest citizens of Montgomery—not one of the finest Negro citizens, but one of the finest citizens of Montgomery." Rosa Parks’ court base was being slowed down in the appeals through the Alabama courts on their way to a federal appeal. The process could have taken years. They held to a boycott for a long time. In the end, black residents of Montgomery continued the boycott for 381 days. Dozens of public buses stood idle for months. It severely damaged the bus transit company’s finances until the city repealed its law requiring segregation on public buses following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Browder v. Gayle that it was unconstitutional. Rosa Parks was not included as a plaintiff in the Browder decision because the attorney Fred Gray concluded the courts would perceive that they were attempting to circumvent her prosecution on her changes working their way through the Alabama state court system. Rosa Parks played a big role in raising the international awareness of the plight of African Americans and the civil rights struggle in general. Dr. King wrote in his 1958 book, “Stride Toward Freedom,” that Parks’ arrest was the catalyst rather than the cause of the protest:  "The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices." He wrote, "Actually, no one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, 'I can take it no longer.'" Rosa Parks was a hero for the ages.

By Timothy

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