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The Background to the Rosa Parks case

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One of my year 13 students last year was doing a debate on her for an English Language session and she suggested that the Rosa Parks incident was 'set-up' in order to maximise publicity for the cause and as a change in policy for the movement she supported. This point returned to mind this morning....

This students also suggested / proffered that there had been an incident with another girl earlier in the same year. She, though, did not have the same impact.

I do not believe that this story/fable/point lessens the value of Mrs Parks and, if anything, blesses the courage of such a lady - for it took a second occassion for anything to change.

Has anyone else heard this story? Can they add weight to my absent knowledge?


This is a posting that appeared on a Forum I am unable to post on (without it being censored). I therefore thought I would reply here as it is a very important issue. The teacher’s lack of knowledge is a reflection on the quality of the textbooks that are used in schools. Rosa Parks is often portrayed as an “innocent” old lady who one day decided to rebel. In fact, the truth is far more complex than that.

Rosa Parks became active in the civil rights in the early 1940s. She joined the National Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and within a couple of years had become secretary of the Montgomery branch (chapter). In this role she met figures such as Philip Randolph, Edgar Nixon and Ella Baker. These activists worked within a range of different organizations. This included the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Established in 1942, members were mainly pacifists who had been deeply influenced by Henry David Thoreau and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and the non-violent civil disobedience campaign that he used successfully against British rule in India. The students became convinced that the same methods could be employed by blacks to obtain civil rights in America.

In early 1947, CORE announced plans to send eight white and eight black men into the Deep South to test the Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in interstate travel unconstitutional. organized by George Houser and Bayard Rustin, the Journey of Reconciliation was to be a two week pilgrimage through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky.

The Journey of Reconciliation began on 9th April, 1947. The team included George Houser, Bayard Rustin, James Peck, Igal Roodenko, Nathan Wright, Conrad Lynn, Wallace Nelson, Andrew Johnson, Eugene Stanley, Dennis Banks, William Worthy, Louis Adams, Joseph Felmet, Worth Randle and Homer Jack.

Members of the Journey of Reconciliation team were arrested several times. In North Carolina, two of the African Americans, Bayard Rustin and Andrew Johnson, were found guilty of violating the state's Jim Crow bus statute and were sentenced to thirty days on a chain gang. However, Judge Henry Whitfield made it clear he found that behaviour of the white men even more objectionable. He told Igal Roodenko and Joseph Felmet: "It's about time you Jews from New York learned that you can't come down her bringing your niggers with you to upset the customs of the South. Just to teach you a lesson, I gave your black boys thirty days, and I give you ninety."

Rosa Parks and other civil rights activists considered using these tactics in Montgomery. However, under pressure from the NAACP, this never took place. Thurgood Marshall, head of the NAACP's legal department had warned that a "disobedience movement on the part of Negroes and their white allies, if employed in the South, would result in wholesale slaughter with no good achieved."

In early 1955, Claudette Colvin, a 15 year old black girl was dragged off a bus in Montgomery and arrested for not giving up her seat to a white person. The NAACP now agreed to take up the Colvin incident as a test case. It believed that this would result in a similar outcome to the 1954 Supreme Court Decision on segregation in education. However, the NAACP decided to drop the idea when they discovered that Colvin was pregnant. They knew that the authorities in Montgomery would use this against them in the propaganda war that would inevitably take place during this legal battle.

It has been assumed that because of Colvin’s pregnancy, the Rosa Parks incident was a set-up. However, this is not the case. On 1st December, 1955, Rosa Parks, left Montgomery Fair, the department store where she worked, and got on the same bus as she did every night. It is not true that she sat in the whites-only front part of the bus (this is the story that most textbooks tell). As always she sat at the back of the bus. However, when the bus became full, the driver instructed Rosa to give up her seat to a white person. This had happened to Rosa several times before. In fact, the same bus driver had forced her off the bus in 1943 for committing the same offence. Once again she refused and was arrested by the police. She was found guilty of violating the segregation law and fined.

It was only at this stage, after consulting friends and family, that she decided to approach the NAACP and volunteer to become a test case. This was a brave decision as she knew it would result in persecution by the white authorities. In fact, this became so intense she was forced to go and live in Detroit. Later she became special assistant to Democratic Congressman John Conyers. He was of course one of those who has constantly called for investigations into the role that the CIA has played in American politics. However, that is another story:


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As Shelia Rowbotham pointed out in today's Guardian (26th October, 2005), Rosa Parks was not very happy with the way this incident was portrayed: "According to legend, on December 1 1955, a weary black woman in Montgomery, Alabama, sat in the "for whites only" front section of a bus and started the civil rights movement. Rosa Lee Parks, who has died aged 92, never stopped explaining that this was not really what happened. Nonetheless she continued to be presented as a simple soul with tired feet - a condescending misinterpretation of a woman who was an experienced and respected campaigner for civil rights."

This is Rosa Parks own account of the incident (included in My Soul is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered)

I had left my work at the men's alteration shop, a tailor shop in the Montgomery Fair department store, and as I left work, I crossed the street to a drugstore to pick up a few items instead of trying to go directly to the bus stop. And when I had finished this, I came across the street and looked for a Cleveland Avenue bus that apparently had some seats on it. At that time it was a little hard to get a seat on the bus. But when I did get to the entrance of the bus, I got in line with a number of other people who were getting on the same bus.

As I got up on the bus and walked to the seat I saw there was only one vacancy that was just back of where it was considered the white section. So this was the seat that I took, next to the aisle, and a man was sitting next to me. Across the aisle there were two women, and there were a few seats at this point in the very front of the bus that was called the white section. I went on to one stop and I didn't particularly notice who was getting on the bus, didn't particularly notice the other people getting on. And on the third stop there were some people getting on, and at this point all of the front seats were taken. Now in the beginning, at the very first stop I had got on the bus, the back of the bus was filled up with people standing in the aisle and I don't know why this one vacancy that I took was left, because there were quite a few people already standing toward the back of the bus. The third stop is when all the front seats were taken, and this one man was standing and when the driver looked around and saw he was standing, he asked the four of us, the man in the seat with me and the two women across the aisle, to let him have those front seats.

At his first request, didn't any of us move. Then he spoke again and said, "You'd better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats." At this point, of course, the passenger who would have taken the seat hadn't said anything. In fact, he never did speak to my knowledge. When the three people, the man who was in the seat with me and the two women, stood up and moved into the aisle, I remained where I was. When the driver saw that I was still sitting there, he asked if I was going to stand up. I told him, no, I wasn't. He said, "Well, if you don't stand up, I'm going to have you arrested." I told him to go on and have me arrested.

He got off the bus and came back shortly. A few minutes later, two policemen got on the bus, and they approached me and asked if the driver had asked me to stand up, and I said yes, and they wanted to know why I didn't. I told them I didn't think I should have to stand up.... They placed me under arrest then and had me to get in the police car, and I was taken to jail.

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