On December 1st, 1955, during a typical evening rush hour in Montgomery, Alabama, a 42-year-old African American woman took a seat on the bus on her way home from the Montgomery Fair department store, where she worked as a seamstress. Before she reached her destination, she quietly set off a social revolution which would impact an entire nation and change the lives of millions of people, not only in the United States but all the way around the world.
Her name was Rosa Parks.
In 1955 racist laws known as ‘Black Codes’ restricted African American citizens to low-paying jobs and made it incredibly difficult for them to vote. These laws also meant black people could be arrested for small things. For example, it was law that the first four rows of a city bus were for white passengers and the last ten rows for black passengers. The seats in the middle could be used by black people if no white people wanted them. But if a white person wanted a seat, the whole row was emptied. Also, when white people needed to disembark, bus drivers in Montgomery made their black passengers disembark by the back door and re-enter by the back door to allow white people to exit the bus. Often times the driver would then pull away before the black passengers had a chance to get back on the bus.
James F. Blake, the driver of the bus Rosa Parks boarded in 1955, had put her off a bus in 1943 when she refused to enter through the back door because the back was jammed with people. After that, she refused to board any bus he drove, but when the bus pulled up to the Court Square stop, Parks forgot to check who the driver was. She got on and took a seat in the middle section, next to a black man at the window and across the aisle from two black women. At the next stop, some white people got on, filling up the seats reserved for them, and one white man was left standing.
“Let me have those front seats,” the driver said, indicating the front seats of the middle section. No one moved. He repeated himself: “Y’all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.”
The black passenger by the window rose, and Parks moved to let him pass by. The two black women across the aisle also stood up. Parks slid over to the window. “I could not see how standing up was going to ‘make it light’ for me,” she wrote in her autobiography, “My Story” (1992). “The more we gave in and complied, the worse they treated us.”
When Mrs Parks defied his order, he called the police and she was arrested, fingerprinted, and briefly incarcerated.
On news of Rosa’s arrest, the black citizens of Montgomery came together and agreed to boycott the city’s buses in protest. This meant that from 5 December 1955 (the date of Rosa’s trial), African Americans refused to travel on buses. This protest lasted 381 days and given African American’s made up 70% of the bus users, eventually brought the city transport services to their knees. The Supreme Court ruled that Alabama’s racial segregation laws were ‘unconstitutional’.
Parks said that she didn’t fully realize what she was starting when she decided not to move on that December 1st evening in Montgomery. It was a simple refusal, but her arrest and the resulting protests began the complex cultural struggle to legally guarantee equal rights to Americans of all races.
“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
For her quiet act of defiance which resonated throughout the world, Rosa Parks is known and revered as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”
It’s amazing the impact one simple action can have.
“So He got up from the table, took off His robe, wrapped a towel around His waist, and poured water into a basin. Then He began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel He had around Him.” John 13.4-5 (NLT)
Jesus took off His robes and washed the feet of His disciples. His actions left them stunned! It changed everything! If Jesus, the Son of God, would humble Himself and wash the feet of His followers, how much more should we show the same humility and grace to those we meet.
People today are often bombarded by words. Never ending conversations. Empty promises. Over used cliches. Sales pitches. Excuses. Sermons. Lectures. The list goes on… What they are waiting for is action. Rather than another sermon, they need to see the love of God in action.
I’m told a picture is worth 1000 words. I wonder how many words the image of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet was worth? I wonder how many words Rosa Parks’ act of defiance was worth?
How we live our lives matters. It tells a story and sends a message. What we do can make more impact that what we say. I think it was St Francis of Assisi who said, “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary use words.”
Rosa Parks passed away in 2005, aged 92. A museum and library facility on the Montgomery corner where she boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus is named for her. She was given the Medal of Honor, the highest award that the U.S. government bestows, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. More than 40 colleges and universities gave her honorary doctorates, and her name is cited in virtually every U.S. history book that addresses the civil rights movement.
I am sure that she never set out to win awards or change history that day back in 1955, all she simply wanted to do was catch a bus home after a long day at work, just like she always did. Yet rather than stay silent in the face of injustice, she let her actions do the talking.
And the whole world heard.