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.