THE POWER OF ONE
When will you get tired of giving in? A look back at Rosa Parks as we conclude Black History Month
As we conclude another Black History Month, it is important to reflect on those individuals that fought, and often times died in the fight, for civil rights and equality. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, and so many others fought tirelessly for equality, not for themselves but for future generations. Although some of their contributions were on a large scale (i.e. Dr. King’s march on Selma), others were simpler, like Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat.
In 1900, Montgomery had passed a city ordinance to segregate bus passengers by race. Conductors were empowered to assign seats to achieve that goal. According to the law, no passenger would be required to move or give up their seat and stand if the bus was crowded and no other seats were available. Over time and by custom, however, Montgomery bus drivers adopted the practice of requiring black riders to move when there were no white-only seats left.
The first four rows of seats on each Montgomery bus were reserved for whites. Buses had "colored" sections for black people, generally in the rear of the bus, even though blacks composed more than 75% of the ridership. The sections were not fixed but were determined by placement of a movable sign. Black people could sit in the middle rows until the white section filled; if more whites needed seats, blacks were to move to seats in the rear, stand, or, if there was no room, leave the bus. Black people could not sit across the aisle or in the same row as white people. The driver could move the "colored" section sign, or remove it altogether. If white people were already sitting in the front, black people had to board at the front to pay the fare, then disembark and re-enter through the rear door.
For years, the black community had complained that the situation was unfair. Parks said, "My resisting being mistreated on the bus did not begin with that particular arrest. I did a lot of walking in Montgomery."
One day in 1943, Parks boarded a bus and paid the fare. She then moved to her seat but driver, James F. Blake, told her to follow city rules and enter the bus again from the back door. When Parks exited the vehicle, Blake drove off without her. Parks waited for the next bus, determined never to ride with Blake again.
On December 1, 1955, after a long day's work at a Montgomery department store, where she worked as a seamstress, Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus for home. She took a seat in the first of several rows designated for "colored" passengers. The Montgomery City Code required that all public transportation be segregated and that bus drivers had the "powers of a police officer of the city while in actual charge of any bus for the purposes of carrying out the provisions" of the code.
As the bus Rosa was riding continued on its route, it began to fill with white passengers. The bus reached the third stop in front of the Empire Theater, and several white passengers boarded. Eventually, the bus was full and the driver noticed that several white passengers were standing in the aisle. Initially, Rosa did not notice that the bus driver was the same man, James F. Blake, who had left her in the rain in 1943, until he stopped the bus and moved the sign separating the two sections back one row, asking four black passengers to give up their seats. The city's bus ordinance didn't specifically give drivers the authority to demand a passenger to give up a seat to anyone, regardless of color. However, Montgomery bus drivers had adopted the custom of moving back the sign separating black and white passengers and, if necessary, asking black passengers to give up their seats to white passengers. If the black passenger protested, the bus driver had the authority to refuse service and could call the police to have them removed. Years later, in recalling the events of the day, Parks said, "When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.”
Three of the other black passengers on Rosa’s bus complied with the driver, but Rosa refused and remained seated. The driver demanded, "Why don't you stand up?" to which Rosa replied, "I don't think I should have to stand up." Blake called the police to arrest Parks.
When recalling the incident for Eyes on the Prize, a 1987 public television series on the Civil Rights Movement, Parks said, "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 have to call the police and have you arrested.' I said, 'You may do that.'" The driver called the police and had her arrested. Later, Rosa recalled, “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, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Parks’ simple act of refusing to give up her seat led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott which lasted 381 days. As a result of the boycott (and the transit company and downtown businesses suffering financial loss), the city of Montgomery had no choice but to lift its enforcement of segregation on public buses.
We can’t all be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. but we all have a little Rosa Parks in us. When Rich Stinson, Strategic Communications, at the San Antonio International Airport tells US that there’s no value in the Black Community (and anyone else who would devalue the black dollar and patronage), he’s no different than the bus driver, James Blake, driving off with Rosa Parks’ money and leaving her behind. We can fly out of the Austin Airport. When you feel discriminated against, marginalized or undervalued at the store or bank, take it upon yourself to not patron those places and rather take your dollars to places of business where it’s appreciated, where YOU’RE appreciated. Maybe, just maybe, your simple act can bring about change.
When will YOU get tired of giving in?
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