Rosa Parks. "The First Lady of Civil Rights". "The Mother of the Freedom Movement". Anyone who has ever sat through a U.S. History class knows Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat, and that arrest led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Boycott was one of the first effective attacks against the Jim Crow Era in the South, and as a result Mrs. Parks became one of the faces of the Civil Rights Movement. There are several sites and historical markers dedicated to Rosa Parks, and we'll cover all of them eventually, but today we're going to go to the spot where she took her first step into the spotlight.
Rosa Louise McCauley was born in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1913. Her father was a carpenter, and her mother was a teacher. When she was still young, her parents separated, and her mother moved Rosa and her younger brother to Pine Level, Alabama in the extreme southeastern corner of Montgomery County. When she was 19, Rosa married Raymond Parks, a barber from Montgomery. He was already a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and with his encouragement Rosa finished her high school diploma and went through the extreme hardships and discrimination that came with registering to vote.
Rosa joined the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in 1943, and was chosen as the chapter's secretary. Around the same time, she worked at Maxwell Air Force Base. Later she worked for the Durr family as a seamstress and housekeeper. Rosa and the Durrs became close friends, and with their encouragement and backing she spent the summer of 1955 at the Highlander Folk School in Grundy County, Tennessee. Highlander was dedicated to providing training for anyone who wanted to take an active leadership role in social justice movements.
Now we need to pause to take a quick look at the rules and laws regarding buses in Montgomery in 1955. An ordinance from 1900 made it legal to racially segregate bus seating, and gave the driver the power to set aside sections for one race, but the ordinance clearly protected anyone from having to give up their seat once they had obtained it. Over time, that policy was overruled by practice. By 1955, the standard setup had a sign that marked the first four rows of a bus as "White Only", but the sign could be moved. Since 75% of all Montgomery bus riders at that time were black, the sign didn't have to be moved often, but if the "White" section filled up, the bus driver could move the sign back a few rows and force anyone sitting there to get up. This was the system Rosa had experienced her entire adult life.
After her summer at Highlander, Rosa came back to Montgomery and got a job as a seamstress at The Fair Store, located at 28 Monroe Street. On December 1, 1955 she left work around 6 p.m. and walked out to the closest bus stop to get a ride home. You can see the spot of the bus stop in the center of the next photo, with the location of the store back and to the right of the small park.
Rosa boarded #2857 and took a seat in the middle section, behind the "Whites Only" sign. The original bus is now an exhibit at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, and you can see a photo of it below.
Rosa rode the bus for two stops before it pulled up in front of the Empire Theater at 214 Montgomery Street (current location of the Rosa Parks Library & Museum). The "Whites Only" section of the bus filled up, so the driver came back, moved the sign back a row and told the four African-Americans seated there to get up. Three of them complied, but Rosa refused, and the driver called the police. The next image shows the arrest report, with J.F. Blake (the bus driver) as the Complainant, and F.B. Day and D.W. Mixon as the responding officers. I've also included a transcription of the Complaint.
Rosa was booked and spent a day in jail. E.D. Nixon (president of the Montgomery Chapter of the NAACP) and Clifford Durr (Rosa's former employer and friend, and a prominent social justice lawyer) were able to bail her out the following evening. We'll end the story here, for now, with Rosa's mug shot. I know we're just getting to the good stuff, but I need to save something for the other historical markers dedicated to the Movement that finally got off the ground when a seamstress from Alabama decided she was tired of being treated like she didn't belong.
The following historical marker sits on the former site of the bus stop where Rosa boarded. The first side discusses the Boycott, while the second gives a brief biography of Rosa. Photos and transcriptions of both sides are included below, along with another marker placed in the ground by the group who sponsored this historical marker.
As always, I've included a map of the marker at the bottom of the post. You can also click on the Map link to see the Goat Hill History Master Map, which includes every location we've covered to date. I'm not going to spoil our next post, but I will say that it involves geology.