Smithsonian

Rosa Parks Chronology

Chronology: Rosa Park’s Arrest and the Montgomery County Bus Boycott

“The story of Montgomery is the story of 50,000 Negroes who were willing to substitute tired feet for tired souls.”

—Martin Luther King, 1958

THE SETTING

A downtown bus stop, Montgomery, Alabama, December 1, 1955 – a damp evening.

THE PEOPLE Rosa Parks

A 43-year-old seamstress who was taking the bus home from work

Mrs. Parks was a hard-working, well-educated, much-respected member of Montgomery's African American community. She was known as a woman of cheerful disposition, great integrity, and strong will. She had made many friends through her work for her church and for her local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

J. S. Blake

A white bus driver

Like other drivers employed by the Montgomery City Line Bus Company, Blake was trained to call police if any passenger refused to comply with state and city segregation laws.

Two White Police Officers

Local officers were required to enforce the Alabama state law specifying that seating on public buses must be segregated by race.

THE REGULATIONS

In 1955, about 70 percent of Montgomery's bus riders were African American. All riders, African American and white, knew the regulations:

Seats at the front of the bus were designated for white passengers only.

Seats at the rear of the bus were designated for African American passengers only.

African Americans could sit in the center section of the bus as long as they sat behind an imaginary "color line" that moved farther and farther back as more white passengers got on the bus. It was the bus driver's job to announce when an African American passenger had to abandon a seat in the center section so that a white passenger could sit down.

African American and white passengers could not sit in the same row of seats. If a white passenger took a seat in a row already occupied by African American passengers, the African Americans had to abandon their seats.

African American passengers were expected to enter the front door of the bus to pay their fare, then exit the bus and reenter through the rear door to find a seat at the back.

THE AFRICAN AMERICAN LEADERSHIP

For several years, the leaders of Montgomery's African American community had been trying to change the bus regulations that they found so humiliating. They filed complaints against the bus company and appealed to the mayor, but nothing changed. The leaders decided that a bus boycott was the best way to bring attention to their cause. They made their plans and waited for an incident that would generate support from the entire African American community.

MRS. PARKS’S ARREST: DECEMBER 1, 1955

When Rosa Parks stepped onto the bus at the end of the workday, she had no intention of causing a stir. She sat down in the middle section. The man in the seat next to her and the two women across the aisle were also African Americans.

Several stops later, a number of white passengers got on the bus. There were only two seats left in the all-white section.

The driver called out to African American passengers in the first row of the center section, "You let him have those front seats!"

The four black passengers knew exactly what the driver meant. . . . None of the blacks said anything nor did they move. . . . The bus driver again demanded the seats saying, "You all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats." Three of the four black passengers got up, but Mrs. Parks only moved her legs so that the man in her window seat could pass. He moved into the aisle and stood with the two black women.

The bus driver, J. S. Blake, left his seat, hovered over Mrs. Parks, still seated, and asked if she was going to get up. Mrs. Parks answered, “No.” Increasingly insistent before the full audience of the crowded bus, he thundered, “If you don't get up, I'm gonna call the police.” Quietly, Mrs. Parks advised him to go ahead and make his call.

The bus driver returned, reinforced with two burly white policemen, who asked Mrs. Parks if the driver had requested her to move. She said, “Yes.” One policeman, unable to understand such obstinacy, wanted to know why she would not vacate the seat. Mrs. Parks replied that she did not think she should have to stand up so someone else could have her seat. Continuing to speak to the policemen, she asked, “Why do you always push us around?” The officer said he did not know and placed her under arrest. (Wright 1991,2,27)

The officers escorted Mrs. Parks to their patrol car and took her to the city jail, where she was fingerprinted, photographed, and booked.

BOYCOTT PLANS

Several hours after Mrs. Parks’s arrest, Mr. E. D. Nixon, a civil rights activist and leader of the African American community, arrived at the jail and posted bond for her release. Mr. Nixon, who earned his living as a Pullman porter on a train, believed that the time had come to try to force a change in the law that enforced discrimination on public transportation.

Mr. Nixon proposed a one-day bus boycott for all of Montgomery's 40,000 African American bus riders. “If we could just get all the Negroes to stay off the bus one day, just to show the bus company where the money comes from, that would be an important demonstration,” he said. (Wright 1991, 36)

At first, Rosa Parks was not sure that she wanted her arrest to be used to provoke the bus company and test the constitutionality of the local city bus law. But after thinking it over, she told Nixon, “If you think we can get anywhere with it, I'II go along with it.” (Wright 1991, 39)

The group planned the bus boycott for December 5, the day Mrs. Parks was to stand trial. They knew that bus boycotts had been tried in many cities but failed because people could not be convinced to stay off the buses. The laborers, the cooks, the maids, and the shop workers feared that if they boycotted the buses they would lose their jobs.

THE GROUNDWORK

Jo Ann Robinson, a professor and civic leader, mimeographed 52,500 leaflets that were stuffed into mailboxes and under doors, and distributed at churches, stores, and restaurants. This is what the leaflet said:

This is for Monday, December 5, 1955. Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown into jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus for a white person to sit down. . . . This has to be stopped. Negroes have rights too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses, they could not operate. Three-fourths of the riders are Negroes, yet we are arrested, or have to stand behind empty seats. If you do not do something to stop those arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or your daughter or your mother.

This woman’s case will come up on Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don't ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday. . . . If you work, take a cab or walk. But please, children and grownups, don't ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off of all buses, Monday. (Wright 1991, 36)

The biggest problem for the boycott planners was finding other ways to get thousands of African American people to work so they wouldn't be tempted to take the bus. Montgomery's eighteen African American-owned taxi companies helped solve the problem. They promised to charge passengers only 10 cents a ride on the day of the boycott, the same as the fare charged by the bus.

THE DAY OF THE BOYCOTT: DECEMBER 5, 1955 Early Morning

It was a cold, windy day. The streets filled with African Americans, young and old, men and women, all walking to work. Groups of African Americans waited on street corners for rides with friends or even strangers. Cabs followed the bus routes, dropping off and picking up passengers at the bus stops. People traveled in old pickup trucks and rode bicycles. Some rode mules to work, and a few drove down the streets of Montgomery in horse-drawn buggies. The buses ran nearly empty. To nearly everyone's astonishment, almost all of Birmingham's African Americans stayed off the buses.

9:00 a.m. at the Courthouse

Mrs. Parks was fined $10 for disobeying a bus driver's instruction. She filed an appeal.

7:00 p.m. at the Baptist Church

A huge crowd attended a mass meeting to decide if the boycott should be continued. A young, little-known minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., was selected as their leader. In a stirring speech that he had little time to prepare, he said:

There comes a time when people get tired. We are here this evening to say to those who have mistreated us so long that we are tired—tired of being segregated and humiliated, tired of being kicked about by the brutal feet of oppression. . . . We had no alternative but to protest.

If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity . . . when the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say, “There lived a great people – a black people – who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.” (King 1958,61–63)

The enormous audience was much moved by King's speech and decided to continue the boycott until the bus company met three basic demands. One required courteous treatment of African American riders. Another was hiring African American drivers to serve African American bus routes. The third revised seating arrangements so that passengers would occupy seats on a first-come, first-served basis (although whites would fill the front seats first and African Americans would fill the back). African American passengers would never have to give up their seats to white passengers or stand up if a white person were seated in the same row.

THE BUS BOYCOTT CONTINUES

The bus company showed no signs of budging. As the first days and weeks of the boycott stretched into months, the company lost a tremendous amount of money.

The boycott continued throughout the winter, into the spring, then through the summer and fall. Frequent rallies were held to boost morale. Boycotters kept up their spirits by singing:

Ain't gonna ride them buses no more,
Ain't gonna ride no more.
Why don't all the white folk know
That I ain't gonna ride no more.
(Williams 1987, 59)

Organizers devised a carpool system that included two hundred cars and forty pickup points for those who couldn't walk to work. City officials tried to disrupt the carpools by citing people as public nuisances as they gathered on the street corners to wait for rides. But the boycott didn't break down. One African American minister stopped to pick up an old woman who had obviously walked a long way. “Sister,” said he, “aren't you getting tired?” Her reply: “My soul has been tired for a long time. Now my feet are tired and my soul is resting.”

THE BOYCOTT TRIUMPHS

On November 13, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation on Montgomery's buses was unconstitutional. This ruling established that any bus rider could take whatever seat was available. There could no longer be any “white” and “black” sections on the bus. On December 20, 1956, the Montgomery police chief received the official federal decree prohibiting segregation on public transportation. He informed his officers that desegregation of buses would begin immediately. On December 21, 1956, the Montgomery Bus Boycott ended, 381 days after it had begun, and the African American residents of Montgomery returned to the buses. Rosa Parks was one of the first to ride the buses. Time magazine reported that “she gazed peacefully out a bus window from a seat of her own choosing.” (Dec. 31,1956,10)