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Rosa Parks’ arrest over six decades ago sparked the Montgomery bus boycott

Rosa Parks’ arrest over six decades ago sparked the Montgomery bus boycott
It has been 62 years since Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. The act sparked a boycott of public transit and made Parks a symbol of the civil rights movement.

“I didn’t get on the bus with the intention of being arrested,” Rosa Parks often said about her protest. “I got on the bus with the intention of going home.”

Parks was not the first protester, however. A 15-year old civil rights activist, Claudette Colvin, was dragged off a bus, arrested and jailed for not giving up her seat to a white woman. Colvin was pregnant at the time, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People didn’t think she would get the support of conservatives to spark a movement. Pressure had been building in Montgomery for some time to deal with public transportation practices that treated blacks as a second-class citizens.

Rosa Parks’ action helped spark the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Parks was a seamstress by trade but was active with the NAACP and Montgomery Improvement Association, working to improve civil rights in her community. Her December 1, 1955 action to refuse to give up her seat in the black section of the bus to a white man was calculated but not planned for that time. Blacks were told to give up their seats to white, if the white section was full.

Parks knew the bus driver that day, James Blake, and that he had a reputation for treating black passengers without dignity. More than a decade earlier, Blake stopped Parks from entering the front of the bus, telling her to use the back entrance, then sped away before she got on.

Parks’ arrest was supposed to start a one-day boycott but it was such a success it transformed into a broader boycott until buses were desegregated, or black people were treated better. The boycott lasted more than a year and helped galvanize the Civil Rights Movement.

After the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. made a speech at Holt Street Baptist Church asking people to join in the fight against segregation, nearly 20,000 passengers boycotted Montgomery’s buses regularly for the 381 days it lasted, and by the end of the boycott, after some bus lines shut down routes to black neighborhoods, as they could no longer sustain the costs, more than 40,000 regular riders of the buses were no longer on them.

The boycott wasn’t without incidents. As it wore on, intimidation was used with sweeping official action designed to deter boycott leaders when Montgomery grand jury indicted 89 boycott leaders in February 1956, including King, Parks, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and most of the other participating black ministers. The charges were based on a 1921 state statute that barred boycotts without “just cause.”

In January 1956, the parsonage where King lived with his family, was bombed. His wife, Coretta Scott King, and their 2-year-old daughter narrowly escaped injury. In August, the home of white Lutheran minister Robert Graetz was bombed. Graetz’s church was all black.

After the boycott ended, King’s home was shot at, and as the boycott was closing, snipers shot into buses in black communities, at one point hitting a young black woman, Rosa Jordan, in the legs. Her injuries were not life threatening. On January 10, 1957, a few weeks after the end of the boycott and segregated seating on the buses, four black churches and two homes were bombed, including Abernathy’s church and parsonage.

The boycott didn’t lead directly to the end of segregation. That took a federal lawsuit filed by five black women, who had been treated unfairly because of their race on city buses, and arrested for refusing to give up their bus seats. They were Aurelia Browder, a housewife, Susie McDonald, who was in her seventies, Jeanette Reese, Claudette Colvin, and Mary Louise Smith, an 18-year old.

During a hearing on Browder vs Gayle held in Montgomery on May 11, 1956, plaintiffs outlined their harsh treatment on city buses for a panel of three judges. The attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education applied not only to public education but to public transportation as well.

On June 5, the special panel ruled in favor of the black plaintiffs. The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in Browder vs Gayle case on November 13, 1956.