(HOST) Tomorrow we observe the anniversary of a major turning point in American history – an event that commentator Olin Robison says now seems all the more stunning for it’s every day origins.
(ROBISON) It will be 50 years tomorrow that Mrs. Rosa Parks, a 42 year old seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, did something that set in motion one of the momentous changes in the history of the United States. This rather shy woman, who had put in a long day of work where she was employed at a department store, was waiting for the Cleveland Avenue bus in Montgomery. She later said that she had a lot of work awaiting her at home that evening and that the very last thing on her mind that evening was getting arrested.
In the 1950s, in Montgomery and elsewhere, the first four rows at the front of city buses were reserved for whites. Blacks were to sit in the back. Blacks could also sit in the middle seats until one of those seats was needed by a white person in which case an entire row had to be vacated so as to spare the white passenger having to sit next to a black person.
As the bus approached her stop on that evening 50 years ago tomorrow, Mrs. Parks knew that the driver of this particular bus was trouble for her. The driver, Mr. James Blake, had, 12 years earlier, in 1943, ejected her from his bus for her failure to abide by one of the customs in place in those days. In the event that there were white passengers already on the bus, Blacks were expected to board at the front, pay their fare – which was ten cents – and then go back out and re-enter by the rear door. It was not unheard of that during this time the driver would close the doors and drive off leaving the would-be black passenger stranded. So, Mrs. Parks, in 1943, had merely walked down the aisle toward the back which caused the driver, Mr. Blake, to eject her from his bus. And he was driving the Cleveland Avenue bus that evening 50 years ago tomorrow.
Mrs. Parks boarded the bus that evening without incident and sat in one of the middle seats.
But after the bus had proceeded three stops a white passenger boarded and needed a seat. The driver told Mrs. Parks and three other black passengers to move. The three others did. She didn’t.
Years later, in an interview for the television series, Eyes on the Prize, Mrs. Parks recalled, “‘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 call the police and have you arrested.’ I said,’You may do that.'”
Four days later, on December 5th, she was in court where she was fined ten dollars plus four dollars in Court costs for violating segregation laws.
But something bigger had already happened. The Montgomery Improvement Association, an organization made up mostly of black ministers, had met and called for a boycott of the bus system on December 5th, the day Mrs. Parks was to appear in court. It was successful.
40,000 people refused that day to ride the buses; they rode in car pools, in lack driven taxis which took groups of people into the city charging them only the bus fare, a few rode mules, but most just walked – up to 20 miles.
The Montgomery Improvement Association realized that they had begun something exceptional. The met again and elected the recently arrived 26-year-old pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, a certain Martin Luther King, Jr., to lead an organized effort to continue the boycott of the bus system, of which most of the riders were black. The boycott lasted three hundred eighty-one days during which a case challenging the segregation laws made its way through the system all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that the segregation laws were illegal and that they had to stop and only then did the boycott end.
Much, much more was to follow. But that act of defiance by Mrs. Parks is almost universally seen as the spark that set in motion what was to become the Civil Rights Movement.
There was a lot of violence, there were court cases, there were sit-ins and marches, there was Govenor George Wallace infamously standing in the doorway to bar the court-ordered admission of students to the University of Alabama, and then under the exceptional leadership of President Johnson, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – arguably the two most transformational pieces of legislation of the 20th century in America.
And it all got underway 50 years ago tomorrow.
Rosa Parks almost managed to live to see this 50th anniversary. She died a few weeks ago, aged 92, on October 24th.
Incidentally, if you would like to see that very bus, the green and white and yellow Cleveland Avenue bus, it is now on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
Thank you, Mrs. Parks.
This is Olin Robison.
Olin Robison is past president of both the Salzburg Seminar and of Middlebury College. He now lives in Shelburne.