On December 1, 1955, a white man boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The bus driver, James F. Blake, instructed some of the African-American bus riders to move toward the back of the bus, yielding to the white passenger. Famously, a woman by the name of Rosa Parks refused. For this insubordination, she was arrested. This moment is rightfully considered a linchpin moment in the American civil rights movement, as a year-long bus boycott (lead in part by Martin Luther King, Jr.) followed, ending a year later, after the federal court system finally declared the segregation of public buses to be unconstitutional.
Parks was well prepared for her showdown five and a half decades ago. She had previously taken a class at a local NAACP chapter on the art of passive resistance, and, in her own words, “was tired of giving in.” Indeed, this was not the first time she had trouble with the Montgomery Bus Lines — but there’s more to the story as to why Parks acted when she did.
Parks’ autobiography (cover pictured above) explains. In 1943, over a decade prior to the event whose anniversary we mark today, Parks (then 30 years old) boarded a Montgomery bus through the front door — at the time something forbidden for an African-American. The bus driver insisted that Parks, who had already paid, exit the bus and re-enter through the rear door. As Parks recounted, when she did not move quickly enough, the driver grabbed her sleeve as if to push her off the bus. She (intentionally) dropped her purse and sat down in a whites-only seat to pick it up. According to Parks, the driver motioned as if he were going to hit her; she stated that she’d get off the bus, staving off attack. She exited but the bus departed before she re-entered. (Some accounts suggest that she did not try to re-enter; others state that the driver sped off before she had an opportunity to do so. In either case, it was not uncommon for buses to disembark before African-Americans were afforded the opportunity to re-enter via the rear door.) Parks had battled with the driver; the driver had won, at the expense of Parks’ dignity.
That driver? James F. Blake.
Parks vowed to never again ride a bus he was driving and, apparently, many times waited for a subsequent bus upon noticing that Blake was driving the first to arrive. However, fifty-five years ago today, she boarded the bus without paying attention to who was behind the wheel. So when Blake ordered her to cede her seat to a white traveler, he also resurrected the memory of a transgression a dozen years prior — and Parks, historically, stood her ground against a nemesis from her past.
From the Archives: Before Rosa: A similar story to the famous one of Rosa Parks’ — but of another woman, a century earlier.
Related: Parks’ autobiography, “My Life.” 26 review, 4.5 stars.