It is difficult, in the world of 2013, to fully grasp the bravery, courage and resolve that it took for Rosa Parks to refuse to move from her seat on a bus.
In today’s world, a passenger boarding a bus in, say, Jackson, Mississippi, or even Montgomery, Alabama, is largely concerned with sitting in a seat that offers the greatest amount of comfort. Little notice is taken in today’s world of the racial calculus of fellow passengers or their seating preferences. Folks simply sit where they want and hope the bus won’t get too cramped before they reach their stop.
In December 1955, when Rosa Parks defied the racial code of passenger seating in Montgomery, challenging the racial mores of the south was a highly dangerous business. A little more than three months before the Parks refused to give up her seat, a 14-year-old African-American student from Chicago was murdered on a trip to Mississippi simply because it was rumored that he whistled at a white woman.
That tragedy, the case of Emmett Till, was horrifically brutal. The teenager was taken from his uncle’s home by white assailants who gouged out one of his eyes, shooting him through the head and disposing of his body with a 70-pound cotton gun tied around his neck with barbed wire. His body was later discovered three days later in a river.
In the world of 1955, a year when a half-dozen lynchings of African-Americans took place, the American south maintained some of the strictest segregation laws imaginable.
For example, in Birmingham, Alabama, the local ordinance stated that it was “unlawful to conduct a restaurant or other place of the serving of food in the city at which white and colored people are served in the same room, unless such white and colored persons are effectually separated by a solid partition extending from the floor upward to a distance of seven feet or higher, and unless a separate entrance from the street is provided for each compartment.”
It was into this environment that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the “colored” section of the bus to a white passenger after the white section was filled. She was arrested for civil disobedience.
In taking that action, Parks, the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, ignited one of the truly remarkable and spellbinding events of the 20th Century in America. For 381 days, Black citizens of Montgomery boycotted the city’s bus system, showing solidarity in an era where there were no cell phones, Facebook or Twitter. In the end, the boycott helped changed the nation’s disposition on segregation, moving the country toward the long push to rescind discriminatory laws.
As the nation commemorates the 100th anniversary of her birth, it is important to not only celebrate the decision of Rosa Parks to remain in her seat, but also to underscore the difference one person can make; to acknowledge the fact a simple act of defiance can change the tone of a nation.
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(Photo: Courtesy Library of Congress)