Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Opinion

5 myths about Rosa Parks

Shortly after 5 p.m., on a cool Alabama evening 60 years ago this week, a 42-year-old woman clocked out from her job as a seamstress at the Montgomery Fair Department Store. Rosa Parks walked to Court Square to board the bus to make the 5-mile trek back to her apartment to cook supper for her husband.

Encountering a standing-room-only bus and having been on her feet all day, Parks decided to do some Christmas shopping while waiting for another bus. Around 6 p.m., as she boarded bus number 2857, Parks was about to change the course of the 20th century. Here are five myths about what happened on Dec. 1, 1955.

1. Rosa Parks sat in the whites-only section of the bus.

Montgomery buses each had 36 seats. The first 10 were reserved for whites only. The last 10 seats were theoretically reserved for blacks. The middle 16 seats were first-come-first-serve, with the bus driver retaining the authority to rearrange seats so that whites could be given priority.

Parks was sitting in an aisle seat on the front row of this middle section. To her left, across the aisle, were two black women. To her right, in the window seat, was a black man.

2. If Rosa Parks had not moved, a white passenger would not have had a place to sit.

A few minutes later, when the bus stopped in front of the Empire Theater, several whites boarded, and driver James Blake noticed a white man standing near the front. He called out for the four black passengers in Parks's row to move to the back, where they would have to stand, as all of the seats were now taken.

They did not respond. Blake got out of his seat and told the four to move, saying, "Y'all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats." Three of the black passengers moved to the back of the bus. Parks, however, refused to get up, sliding from the aisle seat to the window seat, which would have allowed for the white passenger to sit in any of the three seats in her row.

Blake asked: "Are you going to stand up?" Parks looked him in the eye and said, "No."

"Well," Blake responded, "I'm going to have you arrested."

Officers F.B. Day and D.W. Mixon arrested Parks. "Why do you all push us around?" she asked the cops. Day responded, "I don't know, but the law is the law and you're under arrest."

3. This was Rosa Parks's first conflict with that bus driver.

If Parks had been paying attention, she never would have gotten on the bus driven by the tall, blonde, 43-year-old Blake. He had a reputation for using derogatory language toward blacks and making black passengers pay their fare in the front of the bus but reenter in the rear, only to pull away before they could get back on.

A dozen years earlier — in 1943 — Blake had tried to make Parks use the rear entrance after she had already boarded his bus in the front. Parks refused, so Blake grabbed her sleeve to push her off the bus. She intentionally dropped her purse and sat down in the white section to retrieve it. As she looked at Blake she warned him: "I will get off. . . . You better not hit me."

For the next 12 years Parks intentionally avoided riding on Blake's bus. But on Dec. 1, 1955, she absentmindedly boarded his bus.

4. Rosa Parks refused to stand up because she was tired.

"People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true,'' Parks later said. "I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I was at the end of a working day. . . . No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in."

5. Rosa Parks was the first black woman to exercise civil disobedience on a Montgomery bus.

Nine months before Parks's arrest, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested on a Montgomery bus for refusing to yield her seat to a white passenger. She had to be physically removed from the bus by police.

Although Colvin's actions would not be the precipitating factor in the bus boycott, they did inspire Parks, who served as an activist and secretary with the Montgomery NAACP. Colvin joined four other plaintiffs in the court case Browder v. Gayle, challenging the constitutionality of Montgomery's bus segregation ordinances.

When the Supreme Court, on Dec. 20, 1956, ordering Alabama to end bus segregation, so ended the remarkable 381-day bus boycott by the black citizens of Montgomery, which had begun after Parks's arrest.

Why did Parks's actions spark the boycott when Colvin's did not? According to James Farmer, founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, what set Parks apart was that she had an almost "biblical quality." "There was," he recalled, "a strange religious glow about Rosa — a kind of humming Christian light."

When a Christian woman of her stature and humility was treated in that fashion, the leaders — including a 26-year-old Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose church was just a half-mile from where Parks was arrested — saw an opportunity and made their move.

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and the book publisher for Crossway in Wheaton, Ill. He wrote this column for the Washington Post.

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