Tuesday, December 14, 2010

This is Where it Began

On that December evening, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus leading to her arrested for a violation of Chapter 6, Section 11 segregation law of the Montgomery City code. In spite of the fact that she was not even technically seated in the white-only designated section on the bus; she was in a colored section. Regardless, fate dictated it to be the day that changed American and to a larger extent – the world forever.

Mrs. Parks would later recall asking the officer who arrested her, "Why do you push us around?" The officer's response was "I don't know, but the law's the law, and you're under arrest." This woman of great dignity thought, as she was being arrested, that this will be the very last time that she would ever ride in humiliation of this kind again.

Later that evening E.D. Nixon and Clifford Durr bailed Parks out of jail and that very night Nixon and members of the Women’s Political Council stayed up all night mimeographing over 35,000 handbills announcing a bus boycott. The Women's Political Council was the first group to officially endorse the boycott.

On Sunday morning, December 4, 1955, plans for the Montgomery Bus Boycott were announced at all black churches in the area and in a front-page article in The Montgomery Advertiser. By the end of the day, a church rally was held and those attending agreed unanimously to continue the boycott until they were treated with the level of courtesy they expected, until black drivers were hired, and until seating in the middle of the bus was handled on a first-come basis.

Four days later, Parks was tried and convicted for disorderly conduct as well as violating a local ordinance. The trial lasted 30 minutes and she was fined $10, plus $4 in court costs. Parks appealed her conviction and formally challenged the legality of racial segregation. Mrs. Parks would later say:

I did not want to be mistreated; I did not want to be deprived of a seat that I had paid for. It was just time... there was opportunity for me to take a stand to express the way I felt about being treated in that manner. I had not planned to get arrested. I had plenty to do without having to end up in jail. But when I had to face that decision, I didn't hesitate to do so because I felt that we had endured that too long. The more we gave in, the more we complied with that kind of treatment, the more oppressive it became.

On Monday, December 5, 1955, after the success of the one-day boycott, a group of 16 to 18 people gathered at the Mt. Zion AME Zion Church to discuss boycott strategies. The group agreed that a new organization was needed to lead the boycott effort if it were to continue. It was Rev. Ralph Abernathy who suggested the name Montgomery Improvement Association. The name was adopted, the MIA was formed, and march to justice was on. Its members elected as their president a relative newcomer to Montgomery, a young and mostly unknown minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fifty leaders from the African American community gathered that Monday night to discuss the proper actions to be taken in response to Parks' arrest. E.D. Nixon said, "My God, look what segregation has put in my hands!" Parks was the ideal plaintiff for a test case against city and state segregation laws. Plans for such a protest had been underway for some time. Claudette Colvin a 15-year-old, unwed and pregnant, was one of the first to be considered for such a case but she was deemed unacceptable to be the center of a civil rights mobilization.

Mrs. Parks was regarded one of the finest citizens of Montgomery, not one of the finest Negro citizens, but one of the finest citizens of Montgomery. Parks was securely married and employed, possessed a quiet and dignified demeanor, and was politically savvy, which was a huge plus for the cause.

On the day of Parks' trial, which was Monday, December 5, 1955, the WPC distributed the 35,000 leaflets. The handbill read, "We are...asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial ... You can afford to stay out of school for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don't ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off the buses Monday."

It rained that day, but the black community persevered in their boycott. Some rode in carpools, while others traveled in black-operated cabs that charged the same fare as the bus, 10 cents. Most of the remainder of the 40,000 black commuters walked, some as far as 20 miles (30 km). In the end, the boycott lasted for 381 days. Dozens of public buses stood idle for months, severely damaging the bus transit company's finances, until the law requiring segregation on public buses was lifted.

Some segregationists retaliated with terrorism. Black churches were burned or dynamited. Martin Luther King's home was bombed in the early morning hours of January 30, 1956, and E.D. Nixon's home was also attacked. However, the black community's bus boycott marked one of the largest and most successful mass movements against racial segregation. It sparked many other protests, and it catapulted King to the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement.

To sum up the actions of the time Dr. King wrote in his 1958 book Stride Toward Freedom that Parks' arrest was the precipitating factor, rather than the cause, of the protest: "The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices….  Actually, no one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, 'I can take it no longer.'"

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