On December 1, 1955, a small, unassuming-looking African-American woman named Rosa Parks boarded a Cleveland Avenue bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She sat down amongst several white passengers, along with three other African-Americans, in the middle of the bus.
At a later stop, after Parks had settled into her seat, a white passenger boarded the full bus. By the then-current Montgomery laws, the black passengers were legally obligated to leave their seats and give them over to standing white passengers.
It seemed a routine situation as the white passenger made his way down the aisle. The bus driver, James F. Blake, left the driver's seat and moved imposingly up to the four black passengers. His intention was to get the black passengers to move to the back of the bus- basically, it was standard operating procedure. His words, as recalled by Rosa Parks, were: "Y'all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats."
While the other three black passengers obeyed Blake and moved on, Rosa Parks steadfastly refused to budge. Blake eventually contacted the local police and signed a warrant for her arrest.
Blake was later to recall: "I wasn't trying to do anything to that Parks woman except my job. She was in violation of the city codes, so what was I supposed to do? That damn bus was full and she wouldn't move back. I had my orders."
This incident is rightfully considered one of the linchpin moments in the history of the Civil Rights movement in the United States. The Rosa Parks incident sparked a year-long bus boycott in the city of Montgomery, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. The boycott ended one year later, after the federal court system finally declared the segregation of public buses to be unconstitutional.
(Image credit: rmhermen)
But there is more to the story than is generally known. Rosa Parks was well-prepared for her legendary showdown with the Montgomery bus lines. Parks, then 30, had taken a class at the local chapter of the NAACP on the art of passive resistance. In her own words, she was "tired of giving in." And, indeed, the 1955 encounter on the bus was not the first time she had tried to buck the system.
In 1943, over a decade prior to her legendary resistance, Rosa Parks had boarded a local bus through the front door. At the time, this was forbidden behavior for an African-American. The bus driver insisted that Parks, who had already paid her fare, exit the bus and re-enter through the rear door.
As Parks recounted in her autobiography (My Story by Rosa Parks) when she didn't move quickly enough, the driver grabbed her sleeve to push her off the bus. She (intentionally) dropped her purse and sat down in the "whites only" section to pick it up.
According to Parks, the driver then motioned as if he was going to hit her. She then got off the bus, to stave off the potential violence. After she got out of the bus, the driver sped off before she had a chance to re-enter. (Some accounts say she tried to get back on, some say she just exited.)
In either case, the cruel behavior of the driver was not uncommon in Montgomery at the time. That night, Rosa Parks walked home in the rain. Who was the bus driver that night? James F. Blake.
After her incident with Blake, Parks made a vow to herself to never board a bus driven by him again. Many times over the next twelve years, she would deliberately not enter a bus if she saw that Blake was the driver. Inconvenient as it was, routinely, she would simply let a Blake-driven bus go by and wait for the next one.
It was on December 1, 1955, that she boarded a bus without paying attention to who the driver was. Yes, it was James Blake behind the wheel that night, the same driver ingrained in her mind from twelve years earlier. And when Blake told her to move to the back of the bus, it resurrected the memory of her nemesis and his cruel transgression. Only this time Rosa Parks stood her ground and refused to give in.
James F. Blake was to work for the same bus company for the next 19 years. He died of a heart attack in his Montgomery home at the age of 89 in 2002. Blake, it would seem, was a very ordinary man who happened to unwittingly play a key role in a very extraordinary incident in American history.
Rosa Parks was to eventually earn the title of the "First Lady of Civil Rights." She was eventually awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
A brave and remarkable woman, Parks lived to the age of 92, dying in 2005. She was awarded a posthumous statue in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. She was also granted the honor of "lying in honor" at the Capitol Rotunda, only the third private citizen to be so honored.