December 1, 1955

Just last week, I wondered if she’d make it. After all, December 1 is the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ refusal to get up and yield her seat to a white man. As it turns out, the day will be celebrated and remembered without her.

It’s worth recalling the events that led to Rosa Parks defiance and the movement that followed. She would later say that the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi in August helped inspire her. Of course, this might be an example of that human ability to remember things in a more romantic, noble way. Till’s murder, and his mother’s insistence on an open casket did enrage the black community. But it’s also possible she was just tired; she said she wasn’t feeling well, she had sore back and she even went to a drug store to look for a heating pad before climbing on the bus. It’s also possible, perhaps probable, that it was done deliberately knowing she would make a good test case. When another black woman was arrested earlier, local leaders decided against using her because of her checkered past. Regardless of the reasons, Rosa Parks held her ground.

As the bus became crowded and more black passengers moved to stand at the back of the bus, Parks remained in her seat. Finally, more white passengers boarded, and the driver told Rosa and three other black riders they needed to move. The other three moved after a second warning, but Parks stayed put. We often remember the story that Rosa was just asked to move to the back so a white man could sit in the front since there were no seats. Actually, there were seats, but Montgomery’s segregation law made it so whites didn’t even need to sit next to blacks; in other words, Rosa was asked to move so a white man didn’t have to sit next to her, not just so he could have a seat.

The police were called; Rosa Parks was arrested and booked. Almost immediately the story spread through the black community. Local black leaders talked about using her as a test case against the Montgomery segregation laws on the way to the jail to bail her out. Over coffee in her home that night, she agreed, but her husband was terrified of white reprisal – not without good reason. Rallies and meetings were scheduled, and the outspoken Reverand Ralph Abernathy was called. When asked where meetings could be held, Abernathy suggested his friend, a relatively unknown preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. King was initially hesitant about opening Dexter Baptist Church to support the Parks movement and what became the Montgomery bus boycott, but he relented.

It was Rosa Parks’ arrest that thrust King in the spotlight. He was wary of his role at first, but late one night, as he prayed in his kitchen, he had a revelatory experience that convinced him this was a mission from God. Througout his life, as trial after trial came, both literal and figurative, he would recall that moment in his kitchen when God told him what his duty was. The rest, of course, is history.

Comments

  1. John, thank for this, I didn’t know many of these details.

  2. John – thanks for reminding us all of the courage of Rosa Parks and so many others who risked, and sometimes gave, their lives to help our nation realize its intended purpose. I believe we have made great progress over the past 50 years in regard to race relations but certainly we still have miles to go. Each day as I get on the subway near my home in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC I can’t help but notice that the vast majority of those getting off the subway, coming to the suburbs for lower paying domestic jobs are black or people of color while the majority of those leaving the suburbs for higher paying white collar jobs in the District are white. It is certainly not exclusively white and black in opposite directions but it is the case for the vast majority. I wonder if in my lifetime, or in the lifetime of my grandchildren now in their infancy, we will see a truly color blind society. Thanks to the likes of Rosa Parks we have taken a few steps in the right direction.

  3. It really is amazing that there were laws like that in our country for so long. Obviously some countries (South Africa anyway) kept it up for decade more, but what a strange view of the world!

  4. I was unaware of MLK’s spiritual exp. that prompted his mission. In hindsight I should have figured that he may have had such an exp.

    Great post.

  5. I can relate to being that tired. Not even really feeling rebellious or heroic, just bone tired. I just wonderwhere she got her second wind to survive jail.

    I took a class in African American history about eight years ago. There were only five of us in the class, but it was a great class. I learned a lot.

    One of the things that sticks in my mind was a story a white girl in the class told of her boyfriend, who was black, not being allowed in the pool when they lived in Texas. That was the year before.

    I think it takes a long time to really turn hearts around.

  6. John, what a great topic. Sometimes I think we forget the powerful spiritual experiences of people of other faiths. When we see them act on those experiences, we can learn from them just as much as we can learn from people of our own religion “living” their faith. Your post really has made my day. Thank you.

  7. Nate Oman says:

    Frank: The interesting thing about South Africa, is that Aparthied was actually a fairly recent legal phenomena, with most of the laws not going on the books until after WWII. (Obviously, there was lots of legal and de facto discrimination and segregation in South Africa before aprthied was formalized.)

    I think that it is easy to forgot how close we still are in historical terms to the desegregation battles. I worked in Little Rock with a woman went to Central High School when it was desegregated by court order and federal troops over the objections of Gov. Fabus. Interestingly, the suit that gave rise to the confrontation over Central High School is STILL bouncing back and forth between the federal district court in Arkansas and the Eighth Circuit!

  8. “Frank: The interesting thing about South Africa, is that Aparthied was actually a fairly recent legal phenomena, with most of the laws not going on the books until after WWII. (Obviously, there was lots of legal and de facto discrimination and segregation in South Africa before aprthied was formalized.)”

    True,

    The Afrikaans led Government took over in 1948 and codified the informal apartheid that already existed. Apartheid was relaxed in 1990-1993 when I arrived for my mission.

    There will always be informal apartheid to some extent in SA. Most of it going forward will be related to economic advantage held by SA whites.

  9. “Interestingly, the suit that gave rise to the confrontation over Central High School is STILL bouncing back and forth between the federal district court in Arkansas and the Eighth Circuit!”

    This has to say more about the legal system than about how close we are to desegregation.

    I agree, though, that the amazement has something to do with it being within the lifetime of so many people. It is much easier to attribute strange ways to those who lived 200 years ago– rather than people some of whom are still alive.

  10. Living in Ann arbor, Mi, (just about 45 inutes from Detroit), I had the opportunity to meet the late Ms Parks at the Univ of Michigan a couple of times. Once I got to sit very near her, and talk to her. Unlike the despicable folks like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson who call themselves “leaders” of the Afican-American people, Ms Park was different. She was a very dignified, soft-spoken lady. Impressive because, despite all the acclaim, it did not go to her head, and I felt that her dignified approach made her so special. We will all miss her character and courage.
    RIP, Ms Parks.

  11. Sorry to come to this late (is anyone still around?) but I was thinking about Rosa Parks this morning. Didn’t she break the law? That fact should give us pause. I think all of us agree that this was a good thing; we should, then, remember that when Mormons talk about citizenship they almost always invoke “obedience to the law” as a virtue. Ms Parks and others help remind us that this ain’t always so. My all-time Mormon hero Hellmuth Huebener is another example. In my mind, AoF 12 has an addendum: “provided said rulers and laws are not evil.”

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