Rosa Parks, 1955-56

She had been pressing slacks all day at her job. Her feet hurt and her back and shoulders ached. The first bus that came past had standing room only, so she decided to wait for the next bus in hopes of getting a seat. During her wait, she remembered why she often walked home – riding the bus took its toll on her dignity.

The segregation laws in force in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, seem unbelievable today, but they were a reality for thousands of blacks in the South. Take the restrictions on riding the bus, for instance. Even though the majority of bus passengers were people of color, the front four rows of seats were always reserved for white customers. It was common to see people standing in the back of the bus while the first four rows remained empty. Behind the reserved-for-whites section was a middle section where African Americans could sit if the seats were not needed by white customers. If just one white customer, however, needed a seat in this center section, all those already seated had to move.

Even getting on the bus was an elaborate process for black people. They would pay their fare in the front, exit, and then reboard the bus at the back. Rosa died a little each time she found herself face-to-face with this kind of discrimination. In fact, Rosa had once been thrown off a bus for refusing to reboard at the back door.

Finally a second bus came, and to Rosa’s joy, there were a few seats available in the middle section – “no-man’s land.” Rosa climbed the stairs, put her dime in the fare box, climbed back down the stairs, hurried to the back door of the bus, climbed up the stairs, and made it through the aisle in time to find there was still a seat available. Greatly relieved that she wouldn’t have to stand all the way home, she sat down in the row just behind the white section. What a relief to relax for a minute!

The bus picked up more riders and the front section of the bus filled up. When the driver noticed a white man standing in the aisle, he ordered four people, including Rosa, to give up their seats. At first no one moved.

The bus driver said, “You all better make it light on yourselves and give me those seats.” The other three riders did as they were told, but Rosa knew that to do so would be wrong – and she quietly refused to get up. “I’m gonna call the police,” the bus driver threatened.

“Go ahead and call them,” said Rosa. She sank back in her seat. She was tired, true – but even more, she was tired of giving in. It wasn’t just the bus. It was the “whites only” restaurants, the drinking fountains and elevators marked “Colored,” and the unspoken intimidation that were all a part of daily life in a place that did not treat all its citizens as equals. Rosa remembered, “I was tired of seeing so many men treated as boys and not called by their proper names or titles. I was tired of seeing children and women mistreated and disrespected because of the color of their skin. I was tired of legally enforced racial segregation. I thought of the pain and the years of oppression and mistreatment that my people had suffered… . Fear was the last thing I thought of that day. I put my trust in the Lord for guidance and help to endure whatever I had to face. I knew I was sitting in the right seat.”

Rosa later wrote, “I felt the presence of God on the bus and heard His quiet voice as I sat there waiting for the police to take me to the station. There were people on the bus that knew me, but no one said a word to help or encourage me. I was lonely, but I was at peace. The voice of God told me that He was at my side.”

As Rosa waited for the police to come, she thought about her life in the segregated South. Born in 1913, she had grown up on a farm with her mother, her brother, and her grandparents. They were very poor and worked hard to raise enough food to feed themselves. Rosa’s mother, a schoolteacher, taught whenever she could but also took in sewing and worked as a hairdresser. Rosa’s grandparents picked corn, peanuts, and sweet potatoes on nearby plantations – with little Rosa working alongside them. It was so common for African-American children to work all day in the fields that Rosa’s school closed three months earlier than the school for white children. And unlike the white children’s school, Rosa’s school was little more than a shack, without windows or desks and with only a few books.