Rights Movement Essay, Research Paper
One Person’s Belief: The Story of Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement
“My feets is weary, but my soul is rested.” This quote summarizes how Rosa Parks felt after her victory for the advancement of African Americans in society. Rosa Parks’ simple act of protest galvanized America’s civil rights revolution. Mrs. Parks is best known for her refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama.
The civil rights movement originates back to the Reconstruction Era of 1865 to the 1890’s. It had its roots in the Constitutional Amendments enacted during this period. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment expanded the guarantees of federally-protected citizenship rights, and the Fifteenth Amendment barred voting restrictions based on race. Reconstruction radically altered social, political, and economic relationships of blacks in the South and in the nation. Former slaves participated in civic and political life throughout the South and for the first time in the South, a system of universal free public education was available.
The blacks’ new vision of citizenry competed with the Democratic Party’s politics of “redemption,” which promised the restoration of white superiority and “home rule” for Southern states. As Democrats regained control of state governments throughout the South, the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilante groups sought to drive blacks from political life through a relentless campaign of fraud and violence. A combination of municipal ordinances and local and state laws mandating racial segregation ultimately permeated all spheres of public life. The Supreme Court, in rulings such as Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), upheld the South’s “new order,” which essentially nullified the constitutional amendments enacted during Reconstruction.
By the dawn of the new century, government and politics had become, as one historian observed, “inaccessible and unaccountable to Americans who happened to be black.” During the age of Jim Crow, black rallies were a part of everyday life. While the rudiments of citizenship expired, black protest against new laws segregating streetcars spontaneously erupted in locally organized boycotts in at least 25 Southern cities from 1900 to 1906. Some boycotts lasted as long as two years, but these protests failed to stem the tide of segregation. Meanwhile, lynching and other forms of antiblack violence and terrorism reinforced legal structures of white domination.
Black leaders and intellectuals continued to debate a broad range of political strategies. There was, for example, the accommodationism and self-help advancement by Booker T. Washington and others, the civil rights protests advocated by Ida B. Wells and W. E. B. Du Bois, and the nationalist and emigration movements promoted by leaders such as Henry McNeal Turner. These overlapping and sometimes contradictory approaches revealed the tensions and challenges inherent in what often was a daunting effort: how to build and sustain black communities amid the crushing environment of white racism while envisioning a way forward.
During this period of white racism, many groups were formed to help and protect African Americans such as the NAACP. During the war years, NAACP membership soared to nearly 400,000 nationally, and the rate of growth in the South surpassed that in all other regions. Having reported 18,000 members in the late 1930s, the NAACP claimed 156,000 members in the South by the war’s end. In the years to come the NAACP will prove to be quite successful and help lead many boycotts which will eventually lead to the end of segregation.
During the 1950s the struggle against Jim Crow in the South remained distant from national issues and concerns. Meanwhile, whites responded to the steady migration of Southern blacks to Northern cities by extending patterns of racial segregation and black exclusion in housing, employment, and education.
The foundation of the Civil Rights Movement remained anchored in the cumulative gains of the NAACP legal campaign and its extensive network of branches. Southern NAACP leaders, however, faced a broad defense of the racial status. In 1951 the Christmas Day assassination of Harry T. Moore, a leading NAACP organizer in Florida, and his wife inaugurated a decade of white terrorism and state-sponsored repression that heightened in the aftermath of the Brown decision.
On December 1,1955, Rosa Parks, a local NAACP leader in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to surrender her seat on a city bus to a white man. This action, and the mobilizing work of the Women’s Political Council, sparked a boycott of Montgomery buses that lasted for 381 days. Local black leaders elected Martin Luther King Jr., the new 26-year-old minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, as head of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the organization that led the boycott and sued to end segregation on the buses. Hundreds of African Americans, mostly women, walked several miles to and from work each day; as one woman commented, “My feet is tired, but my soul is rested.” This dignified protest contrasted with the city’s efforts to intimidate the MIA leadership through indictments, injunction, and the bombing of King’s house, and it attracted the attention of the national and international media.
Many people believe Rosa Parks’ decision to stay seated on the bus did not officially start the civil rights movement but perhaps it occurred in 1949 when a black professor Jo Ann Robinson absentmindedly sat at the front of a nearly empty bus, then ran off in tears when the bus driver screamed at her for doing so. Or maybe it started in the early 1950s when a black pastor named Vernon Johns tried to get other blacks to leave a bus in protest after he was forced to give up his seat to a white man, only to have them tell him, “You ought to knowed better.”
The story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is often told as a simple, happy tale of the “little people” triumphing over the seemingly insurmountable forces of evil. The truth is a little less romantic and a little more complex.
The simple version of the story leaves out some very important people, such as Jo Ann Robinson, of whom Martin Luther King, Jr., would later write, “Apparently indefatigable, she, perhaps more than any other person, was active on every level of the protest.” She was an educated woman, a professor at the all-black Alabama State College, and a member of the Women’s Political Council in Montgomery. After her traumatic experience on the bus in 1949, she tried to start a protest but was shocked when other Women’s Political Council members brushed off the incident as “a fact of life in Montgomery.” After the Supreme Court’s Brown’s decision in 1954, she wrote a letter to the mayor of Montgomery, W.A. Gayle, saying that “there has been talk from 25 or more local organizations of planning a city-wide boycott of buses.” By 1955, the Women’s Political Council had plans for just such a boycott. Community leaders were just waiting for the right person to be arrested, a person who would anger the black community into action, who would agree to test the segregation laws in court, and who, most importantly, was “above reproach.” When fifteen year old Claudette Colvin was arrested early in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat, E.D. Nixon of the NAACP thought he had found the perfect person, but Colvin turned out to be pregnant. Nixon later explained, “I had to be sure that I had somebody I could win with.” Enter Rosa Parks.
On Thursday, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a city bus and sat with three other blacks in the fifth row, the first row that blacks could occupy. A few stops later, the front four rows were filled with whites, and one white man was left standing. According to law, blacks and whites could not occupy the same row, so the bus driver asked all four of the blacks seated in the fifth row to move. Three complied, but Parks refused. She was arrested.
When E.D. Nixon heard that Parks had been arrested, he called the police to find out why. He was told that it was “none of your damn business.” He asked Clifford Durr, a sympathetic white lawyer, to call. Durr easily found out that Parks had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus. Nixon went to the jail and posted bond for Parks. Then he told her, “Mrs. Parks, with your permission we can break down segregation on the bus with your case.” She talked it over with her husband and her mother, then agreed.
That night, Jo Ann Robinson put plans for a one-day boycott into action. She mimeographed handouts urging blacks to stay off the city buses on Monday, when Parks’ case was due to come up. She and her students distributed the anonymous fliers throughout Montgomery on Friday morning. That evening, a group of ministers and civil rights leaders had a meeting to discuss the boycott. It did not go well. Many ministers were put off by the way Rev. L. Roy Bennett took control of the meeting. Some left and others were about to leave.
When the boycott began, no one expected it to last for very long. There had been boycotts of buses by blacks before, most recently in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1953. On Thursday, December 8, the fourth day of the boycott, King and other MIA officials met with officials and lawyers from the bus company, as well as the city commissioners, to present a moderate desegregation plan similar to the one already implemented in Baton Rouge and other Southern cities, including Mobile, Alabama. The MIA was hopeful that the plan would be accepted and the boycott would end, but the bus company refused to consider it. In addition, city officials struck a blow to the boycott when they announced that any cab driver charging less than the 45 cent minimum fare would be prosecuted. Since the boycott began, the black cab services had been charging blacks only 10 cents to ride, the same as the bus fare, but this service would be no more. Suddenly the MIA was faced with the prospect of having thousands of blacks with no way to get to work, and with no end to the boycott in sight.
Whites tried to end the boycott in every way possible. One often-used method was to try to divide the black community. On January 21, 1956, the City Commission met with three non- MIA black ministers and proposed a “compromise,” which was basically the system already in effect. The ministers accepted, and the commission leaked (false) reports to a newspaper that the boycott was over.
Despite all the pressures to end the boycott, blacks continued to stay off the buses. One white bus driver stopped to let off a lone black man in a black neighborhood. Looking in his rear view mirror, he saw an old black woman with a cane rushing towards the bus. He opened the door and said, “You don’t have to rush auntie. I’ll wait for you.” The woman replied, “In the first place, I ain’t your auntie. In the second place, I ain’t rushing to get on your bus. I’m jus’ trying to catch up with that nigger who just got off, so I can hit him with this here stick.”
On November 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the federal court’s ruling, declaring segregation on buses unconstitutional. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was officially over. Blacks returned to the buses on December 21, 1956, over a year after the boycott began, but their troubles would continue long after the boycott ended.
It is said that everything that happens, happens for a reason. It was in Rosa Parks’ destiny to ride that particular bus that day and stand up for what she believed in. She did not know what effects it would have on society, she just simply did what she felt was right. Rosa Parks’ simple decision to remain seated on the bus eventually led to the disintegration of institutionalized segregation in the South, ushering in a new era of the civil rights movement.
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