Knowing what must be done does away with fear

Paula Mahar on 2014-05-15 21:58:09

Born in Alabama in 1913, the granddaughter of slaves, Rosa McCauley Parks, the woman whose name became synonymous with a seat on a bus, had to walk to the one-room schoolhouse where she began her education because only the white children were bused to their school. Her entire education took place in segregated schools, but her formal learning came to halt when she had to leave school to care for her ailing mother and grandmother.

She found a job as a seamstress at a shirt factory in Montgomery and at 19, married a barber named Ray Parks who was active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Ray encouraged his wife to get her high school diploma, and she joined him as an active member of the NAACP at a time when the policy of segregation was designed to keep the races apart and to keep African-Americans subordinate. The growing Civil Rights movement was focusing attention on the inherent wrong of this policy, but the Ku Klux Klan was active and violent in using fear tactics to deny black Americans their rights. Segregation was so ingrained in the daily lives of Alabama citizens that for many black passengers, there was no point in trying to change the way things were.

The accepted policy for Montgomery buses was for black passengers to give up their seats if a white passenger didn't have a seat. On December 1, 1955, 42-year old Rosa Parks had finished her workday and boarded the bus to go home. When the bus driver noticed that white passengers were standing in the aisle, he asked seated black passengers to surrender their seats. Rosa refused to give up her seat. When the bus driver demanded to know why she didn't give up her seat to the waiting white passenger, Rosa told him, ""I don't think I should have to stand up." In 1950s Alabama, that meant she was breaking the law and Rosa was arrested.

When she was arrested, Rosa didn't grasp the significance of what was about to unfold or that she was about to change history. She said that the only thing that made it significant was that “the masses of the people joined in." In response to her arrest, African American leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., formed the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Montgomery's buses remained idle in the streets while the former passengers chose to walk to work, sometimes great distances, to support not only the stand that Rosa Parks had made, but also to affirm their own rights as Americans.

Segregationists retaliated by burning churches attended by black people and the home of Dr. King was bombed. Taking part in the boycott was not easy; in fact, there was an old Alabama law that made it illegal, and some African-Americans were arrested for violating the law. Rosa Parks lost her job, and her husband was fired from his, forcing them to leave Montgomery to move to Detroit, where they found work.

But this time there was no turning back. African Americans put their fear aside as they joined forces to assert their rights. After 13 months, the Montgomery Bus Boycott ended. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that that segregated busing on public transportation violates the United States Constitution. In 1999, Rosa Parks was named to Time's list of the 20th Century’s most influential people. The student who had to walk to school helped to guarantee that all Americans, regardless of color, had the right to a seat on the bus.
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