by David Garrow
The Montgomery Bus Boycott
Thursday had been busy and tiring for Mrs. Raymond A. Parks. Her job as a tailor's assistant at the Montgomery Fair department store had left her neck and shoulder particularly sore, and when she left work at 5:30 P.M. that December 1, 1955, she went across the street to a drugstore in search of a heating pad. Mrs. Parks didn't find one, but she purchased a few other articles before recrossing the street to her usual bus stop on Court Square. The buses were especially crowded this cold, dark evening, and when she boarded one for her Cleveland Avenue route, only one row of seats — the row immediately behind the first ten seats that always were reserved for whites only — had any vacancies. She took an aisle seat, with a black man on her right next to the window, and two black women in the parallel seat across the way.
As more passengers boarded at each of the two next stops, the blacks moved to the rear, where they stood, and the whites occupied their exclusive seats at the front of the bus. At the third stop, more passengers got on, and one, a white male, was left standing after the final front seat was taken. The bus driver, J. F. Blake, looked back and called out to Mrs. Parks and her three colleagues, "All right you folks, I want those two seats." Montgomery's customary practice of racial preference demanded that all four blacks would have to stand in order to allow one white man to sit, since no black was allowed to sit parallel with a white. No one moved at first. Blake spoke out again: "You all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats." At that, the two women across from Mrs. Parks rose and moved to the rear; the man beside her rose also, and she moved her legs to allow him out into the aisle. She remained silent, but shifted to the window side of the seat.
Blake could see that Mrs. Parks had not arisen. "Look, woman, I told you I wanted the seat. Are you going to stand up?" At that, Rosa Lee McCauley Parks uttered her first word to him: "No." Blake responded, "If you don't stand up, I'm going to have you arrested." Mrs. Parks told him to go right ahead, that she was not going to move. Blake said nothing more, but got off the bus and went to a phone. No one spoke to Mrs. Parks, and some passengers began leaving the bus, not wanting to be inconvenienced by the incident.
Mrs. Parks was neither frightened nor angry. "I was thinking that the only way to let them know I felt I was being mistreated was to do just what I did — resist the order," she later recalled. "I had not thought about it and I had taken no previous resolution until it happened, and then I simply decided that I would not get up. I was tired, but I was usually tired at the end of the day, and I was not feeling well, but then there had been many days when I had not felt well, I had felt for a long time, that if I was ever told to get up so a white person could sit, that I would refuse to do so." The moment had come, and she had had the courage to say no.
Blake returned from the phone, and stood silently in the front of the bus. After a few minutes, a police squad car pulled up, and two officers, F. B. Day and D. W. Mixon, got on the bus. Blake pointed to Mrs. Parks, said he needed the seat, and that "the other ones stood up." The two policemen came toward her, and one, in Mrs. Parks's words, "asked me if the driver hadn't asked me to stand. I said yes. He asked, 'Why didn't you stand up?' I said I didn't think I should have to. I asked him, 'Why do you push us around?' He said, 'I don't know, but the law is the law, and you are under arrest.' So the moment he said I was under arrest, I stood up. One picked up my purse, one picked up my shopping bag, and we got off the bus." They escorted her to the patrol car, and returned to talk to Blake. The driver confirmed that he wanted to press charges under Montgomery's bus segregation ordinance, and the officers took Mrs. Parks first to police headquarters and then to the city jail. By then Mrs. Parks was tense, and her throat was uncommonly dry. She spied a water fountain, but was quickly told that she could not drink from it — it was for whites only. Her processing complete, Mrs. Parks was allowed to call home and tell her family what had transpired.
Word of Mrs. Parks's arrest began to spread even before that phone call. One passenger on the bus told a friend of Mrs. Parks's about the event, and that friend, Mrs, Bertha Butler, immediately called the home of longtime black activist E. D. Nixon, a past president of Montgomery's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter and the most outspoken figure in the black community. Nixon was not at home, but his wife, Arlet, was, and she phoned his small downtown office. Nixon was out at the moment, but when he returned a few moments later, he saw the message to call home. "What's up?" he asked his wife. She told him of Mrs. Parks's arrest, but couldn't tell him what the charge was. Nixon hung up and immediately called the police station.
The foregoing is excerpted from Bearing the Cross by David Garrow. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
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