On December 1, 1955—57 years ago today—civil rights activist Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Her arrest would set off a nearly year-long battle against segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama.
In the 1950s, the first ten seats in Montgomery’s public buses were reserved for white passengers, while African Americans were made to sit in the back. Seated in the front of the African American section of a city bus, Parks refused to move when the driver told her to give up her seat to a white male passenger. She was arrested and convicted of disorderly contact.
Her arrest inspired a group of civil rights leaders to organize a bus boycott, which was immediately successful in emptying the buses. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., was formed to supervise the boycott that emerged and gained momentum over the next year as African Americans boycotted public transportation facilities in protest of the arrest and of segregation laws in general. Simultaneously, Parks’ lawyer filed for appeal of her conviction.
Nearly a year later, in November 1956, leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott were at long last able to celebrate victory after the Supreme Court (in a separate case regarding racial segregation) ruled Alabama’s bus segregation laws unconstitutional. The Court upheld a U.S. district court’s ruling in Browder v. Gayle, in which bus segregation laws were found to be in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The decision involved only Alabama laws, but it had far-reaching effects; at the time, seven other states had laws similar to those found unconstitutional in Alabama.
Thus, the movement Rosa Parks helped inspire achieved a decisive victory; the activists’ success heralded future progress against segregation and discrimination.
Parks paid the price; she lost her job after her arrest and had to move after she was unable to secure new work. Later, she would spend more than twenty years as secretary to U.S. Representative John Conyers. At the same time, she cofounded the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation, and, a few years later, the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development.
Parks later received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, among many other awards and honors. After her death, she became the first woman to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda.
Her life was chronicled in the documentary Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks.
To learn more about Rosa Parks, and to view her arrest records, check out this page from the National Archives’ website. To view Parks’ arrest photo, click here. More information can also be found on the Scholastic website, online at Gale Cengage Learning, and in Rosa Parks and Jim Haskins’ Rosa Parks: My Story (Puffin 1992). With Gregory Reed, she also published a memoir, Quite Strength.
Numerous books pay tribute to Parks’ courage; some of these include Douglas Brinkley’s Rosa Parks: A Life (Penguin 2005) and Jeanne Theoharis’ The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Beacon, forthcoming in January 2013). Readers may also be interested in the juvenile nonfiction book, The Bus Ride that Changed History: The Story of Rosa Parks, by Danny Shanahan and Pamela Duncan Edwards (Houghton Mifflin 2005).
To learn more about the long history of protests against transportation discrimination, check out Blair Kelley’s Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson (UNC Press, 2010).
For more information about the Montgomery bus boycott, check out Stewart Burns’ Daybreak of Freedom (UNC Press, 1997), this blog post, and this page from the PBS website. For a video clip from PBS, click here.