On 1 December 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give her bus seat to a white passenger. In these exclusive BBC clips, discover how her courageous act of defiance set in motion a chain of events that ended segregation in the US, but at a personal cost to Parks herself.
On a winter’s evening in 1955, a 42-year-old African-American woman named Rosa Parks, tired after a long day of work as a seamstress, boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama to get home. She paid her fare and took an empty seat in the area of the bus marked “coloured”.
Fifty-five years earlier, Montgomery had passed a law to segregate bus passengers by race. The front of the bus was reserved for white citizens, the seats at the back for black citizens. But it had also become a custom that bus drivers would instruct a black passenger to give up their seat if there were no “white-only” seats.
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As the bus filled up, the bus driver James Blake demanded that she and three other black passengers give up their seats. Rosa Parks alone refused.
“I did this because I felt I was being violated as a human being. I had had a hard day at work on the job, [I was] physically tired as well as mentally vexed. I was sick of this type of thing we had to endure as a people because of our race,” she later said in an interview with the BBC.
The repercussions were swift. The bus was stopped, and Parks was promptly arrested by local police. On 5 December, she was found guilty of violating segregation laws, given a suspended sentence and fined $10, plus $4 in court costs.
The arrest was not an isolated event but a consequence of the Jim Crow laws, legislation designed to codify racism and marginalise black Americans. The laws governed almost every aspect of daily life, denying black Americans the right to vote and mandating the segregation of schools, toilets, public transport and restaurants.
This was not the first time someone had been arrested for refusing to give up a seat to a white passenger. Nine months previously, the same thing had happened to 15-year-old Claudette Colvin. But this time the act of quiet defiance proved to be a catalyst for change.
Punished for her bravery
Parks’s outwardly calm appearance belied the fact that she was a seasoned activist who had been the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). Following her arrest, a boycott of the city’s bus system was organised by the Montgomery Improvement Association, led by a 26-year-old-pastor named Martin Luther King Jr. The boycott lasted more than a year, crippling the public transportation system through lost revenue, and brought a national spotlight on the systemic racism inherent in the Jim Crow laws.
Meanwhile Parks’s case made its way through the court system. It ultimately reached the US Supreme Court in December 1956, which ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional.
But Parks was punished for her bravery: she lost her job at the department store in the wake of the boycott, and she faced death threats throughout the court proceedings.
In History is a series which uses the BBC’s unique audio and video archive to explore historical events that still resonate today
The year after the Supreme Court ruling, she and her husband, who also lost his job, moved to Detroit to escape the continual harassment.
In the years that followed, they both struggled to find work due to a backlash caused by her close association with the boycott. She also was plagued with health issues and medical bills. Despite this, she remained deeply involved in the fight for civil rights, campaigning in Detroit for fair housing and voter registration. She volunteered for local Democratic candidate John Conyers in his bid for Congress, who when elected, hired her as his assistant in his Detroit office, a position she held until her retirement.
The impact of Rosa Parks’s arrest went far beyond merely putting an end to racial segregation on public transportation. Her quiet strength in the face of racism galvanised the black community, laying the foundations for civil rights campaigns, including the historic March on Washington in 1963 and the eventual passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“I think that if there was any one point, one event in the civil rights movement that started in the 1950s you can pinpoint to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Miss Parks… which was symbolised by this courtroom and her conviction in it,” says Fred Gray, Rosa Parks’s lawyer in the BBC interview.
Her refusal to give up her seat fuelled the momentum of a mass movement that would ultimately dismantle the racist policies of segregation. And she herself became a symbol of the struggle for justice and equality.
In 1999, the US Congress awarded her its highest honour, the Congressional Gold Medal, calling her “the mother of the civil rights movement”.
In History is a series which uses the BBC’s unique audio and video archive to explore historical events that still resonate today.
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