MLK, Jr. maximized Rosa Parks’ sacrifice

Special to the S-E

The life of Martin Luther King Jr. is commemorated Jan. 16, but it takes vast numbers of people to boost the effectiveness of such a leader. Two of those people were Claudette Colvin and the better-known Rosa Parks, both from Alabama.

Colvin was 15 in March of 1955 when she paid her bus fare to go home from high school. The white kids had free bus rides home.

At her blacks-only school, students were immersed in Negro History Month, most recently studying Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. As a runaway slave, Tubman had freed more than 70 slaves using the secretive Underground Railroad. And Truth, a former slave, was an abolitionist and women’s rights activist.


Classroom discussions had included routine legal discrimination and segregation experienced by the students, such as not being allowed to go to white drinking fountains, white restrooms, white schools, white hospitals, or white restaurants, and prohibitions against trying clothes on before buying. (Those Jim Crow laws began in 1876 and ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.)

So when the bus driver told Colvin to move further back in the bus so a white passenger could have her conveniently located seat, Colvin resisted. She informed the driver that she had paid her fare and it was her Constitutional right to stay in her seat.

Later, she recalled that, “It felt like Soujourner Truth was on one side pushing me down and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down.
“I couldn’t get up.”

The bus driver called police, and two officers arrived to arrest her. She was alarmed when one officer sat in the back of the squad car with her and both officers made lewd comments. But they arrived at the adult jail, where she was not allowed to make a call, and where she had no idea if family even knew where she was.

The neighborhood grapevine did know; Colvin was bailed out that night by a church pastor.

Challenge’s law

“But I was afraid that night,” she recalls. “I had stood up to a white bus driver and two white cops. I had challenged the bus law. There had been lynching’s and cross burnings for that kind of thing.”

Her entire neighborhood kept an armed and uneasy watch.

Three other women joined Colvin in a successful lawsuit against the bus segregation laws, in the 1956 Browder vs. Gayle case.

Nine months after Colvin’s “disobedience,” the quiet and dignified Rosa Parks, age 42, had her own “not going to take it anymore” moment.

Many have said she was tired from a long day at work, where she ironed clothes all day in the basement of a department store. Her own story is a bit different.

“The only tired I was…was tired of giving in.”

When a white person wanted her seat on the bus, a seat in the Negro section, she too resisted the bus driver’s demand to move.

She told him, simply, “No.” When the driver threatened to have her arrested, Parks said, “You may do that.” Three others had been asked to move, and did so reluctantly.
It was Parks who did not give in.

The police officer arrived and asked her why she would not move. Parks asked him, “Why do you all push us around?”

It wasn’t what the officer expected, and he admitted, “I don’t know…But the law is the law and you’re under arrest.” She was charged with disorderly conduct.


Later she said what was utmost on her mind at the time was the recent tragic death of a 14-year old black boy who had been lynched for possibly flirting with a white woman.
“I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back,” she said. (See South rife with discord in 1955.)

The local white system was likely unaware that this quiet and calm woman was both politically aware and well-connected. White employers had sponsored her attendance at Highlander Folk School, where she had training in leadership and social justice. She was also secretary for the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and was held in the highest regard by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Of course, it was more than the indignity of giving up her seat that drove Parks to take action. She grew up witnessing KKK marches past her home. When her brother returned from WWII, where he had saved the lives of white soldiers, he’d been spat upon. And she had closely watched the trial of a teenaged black boy who had been framed for the rape of a white woman, then sent to the electric chair (at the time the death penalty was considered appropriate for rape of a white woman by a black man).

MLK speaks

On the day of Parks’ own trial (and conviction) there was a 5,000-person rally at one of Montgomery’s Baptist churches, which overflowed the doors. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke for Parks and all people suffering discrimination.

As leader of the new Montgomery Improvement Association, King brainstormed a plan: they would encourage a boycott of the public bus system until they were treated with courtesy, until blacks were allowed to be bus drivers, and until seats were allotted first-come, first-serve.

The boycott lasted 381 days, with people walking or carpooling, remaining steady in their boycott mission. City busses, which relied on the income from 75 percent black passengers, were idled for months.

Finally, the city did repeal the segregation law after Browder vs. Gayle confirmed it was unconstitutional.

After her legal ordeal, Parks was fired from her job and experienced a heavy onslaught of death threats. When the boycott was completed, she and her husband moved to Detroit, where she worked as a secretary and receptionist for U.S. Rep. John Conyers. She was also involved in the Black Power movement and supported the cause of political prisoners in the U.S.

Eventually, Parks was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Congressional Gold Medal. As well, a highway was named for her, in the aftermath of the KKK adopting a section of I-55 for litter pickup -- and free publicity.

Bus in museum

Today, there is a historical plaque at the bus stop, and the original bus Parks was taken from is on display at the Henry Ford Museum.

When she died at age 92, Parks was remembered as “timid and shy” with “the courage of a lion.”

Former Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, said had it not been for Rosa Parks, she doubted she would have had the chance to become Secretary of State.

Rosa Parks Day is celebrated in California, Missouri, Ohio and Oregon.

Sources include: Rosa Parks: My Story, by Rosa Parks; Quiet, by SusanCain; The Montgomery Bus Boycott: A History and Reference Guide by Cheryl Phibbs; CNN, Civil Rights Icon Dies at 92; Happy Birthday Rosa Parks, 2-2-09,