It’s hard to believe that less than 100 years ago, segregation between black and white people existed. Due to the Jim Crow Laws, African Americans were only allowed to drink from specific water fountains, borrow books from “black” libraries, and sit in a section on the back of the bus designated for them (among many other restrictions).
Although many groups existed to end racial segregation, there was a brave act, in particular, made by an African American woman named Rosa Parks, that changed history forever.
Little did Rosa know that her refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery Alabama bus in 1955 would go down in history and help initiate the civil rights movement.
Who Was Rosa Parks?
Rosa Louise McCauley was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, on February 4, 1913. From a young age, Rosa saw the effects of racism in her own life, her family’s, and her community.
Both of Rosa’s grandparents were former slaves and had become strong advocates of racial equality. Rosa recalled once witnessing her grandfather stand outside of their house with a shotgun while members of the Ku Klux Klan marched throughout their neighborhood.
Rosa also attended a segregated school where she saw injustice on a daily basis – like black students lacking school supplies such as desks and no bus transportation to school. However, she left school in the 11th grade to work as a seamstress and take care of her sick grandmother and mother.
At the age of 19, Rosa married Raymond Parks, a barber and member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. With the support of Rosa Parks’s husband, she would go on to receive her high school degree in 1933.
Rosa Parks Refuses to Stand Up on the Bus
Rosa and Raymond were well-respected among the African American community in Montgomery. However, no one expected a quiet woman like Rosa, at the age of 42, to do what she did on her way home from work one evening.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa boarded a local bus to go home after a long day of work. Although most black people in the community avoided riding municipal buses because of the “negroes in the back” policy, Rosa, along with 70 percent of people on the bus on an average day, were still black.
The law was that the front of the bus was reserved for white citizens and the seats behind them for black. However, bus drivers often asked blacks to give up their seats for a white passenger if they felt it necessary.
That particular day, a white man was left without a seat in the white section of the bus, so the driver asked the first row of the colored section to move a row back. While three other people sitting in that section obeyed, Rosa did not.
This wasn’t the first time Rosa had an unpleasant situation with that particular bus driver. Twelve years prior, Rosa ran into trouble with him when she refused to pay for her ticket and re-renter through the back door. After he tugged her coat to get her to cooperate, Rosa left the bus and walked home.
Rosa wrote in her biography, Rosa Parks: My Story, that “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. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
When the driver asked Rosa why she refused to stand up, she replied, “I don’t think I should have to stand up.” The driver then called the police and had her arrested.
Rosa Parks Bus Boycott
After being taken to the station and having to be released on bail, she returned home to find her friend and civil-rights leader Edgar Daniel (E.D.) Nixon. Nixon explained to Rosa that this was the perfect opportunity to become the plaintiff and help shed light on segregational injustice. He also had the idea of black people boycotting to ride the bus on the day of her trial.
On the day of her trial on December 5th, Rosa was found guilty and was fined $10, including a $4 court fee. However, what happened outside of the court was completely unexpected. Rosa, along with her friends, had managed to send out 35,000 flyers to blacks in the community, asking for their support not to ride the bus.
It ended up being more successful than anyone could have imagined. Not only was she greeted by 500 black supporters outside of the courthouse the morning of her trial, but the city buses were practically empty since about 40,000 African Americans in the community normally rode the bus.
This boycott lasted for 381 days, with blacks walking to work rain or shine – some even walking as far as 20 miles. After months of national and international press, idle buses, and a severe financial tank for the transit company, the situation was sent to the Supreme Court and was ruled unconstitutional for segregation on public transit.
Rosa Parks’s Legacy
From that day forward, Rosa was known as “the mother of the civil rights movement.” Although she would lose her job and be harassed for years to come, she became a celebrity for launching a nationwide effort to end racial segregation.
Rosa was awarded several honors throughout her lifetime, including the Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award.
After passing in 2005, Rosa, along with Martin Luther King, Jr., remained the face of the civil rights movement and the struggle to end racism.
Teaching Rosa Parks to Children
Rosa Parks is one of the many influential African American women in history that every child should know about. Luckily we have some material to help you teach your kids about her.
Not only do we have a Montgomery Bus Boycott timeline figure, but we also cover the civil rights era in our 20th Century in America Lap-Pak. These studies feature hand-on projects to help children better connect with the people, places, and events of that period.
We hope you have enjoyed learning the history behind Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. If it weren’t for brave people like Rosa, we wouldn’t be nearly as close to living in peace as we are today.
To end, we’ll leave you with this inspirational Rosa Parks quote: “Racism is still with us. But it is up to us to prepare our children for what they have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome.”