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This Week in History
November 27 - December 3, 1955
Rosa Parks Refuses To Go to the Back of the Bus

November 2011

Library of Congress
Rosa Parks.

December 1, 1955 would well be remembered as the seed-kernel of the mass-based civil rights movement in the United States, under the leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. While it would be another four to five years before a youth movement took off, around the launching of the freedom rides, the sit-ins, and ultimately, the voter registration drives, the refusal of Mrs. Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Ala. to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, on this date, set in motion the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began to put non-violent resistance to segregation on the political map.

Rosa Parks was a 42 year-old African-American seamstress in Montgomery, who was coming home from work on that Thursday evening. She had sat down in the middle of the bus, which was designated as a "mixed" area for blacks and whites. At that point the bus was not full. But, under the segregation laws of Montgomery, if the bus became full, black (then "Negro") riders were obliged to give up their seats to whites, and move to the "back of the bus."

When the bus filled up, and a white man was left standing, the bus driver ordered Mrs. Parks to give up her seat. She refused, and was arrested for violating the segregation law.

In reality, this was not a unique situation. Other women had done the same thing. But Mrs. Parks was a well-known member of the Negro community, having been a former secretary of the NAACP, and a beloved, gentle woman. The news of her arrest outraged her friends, and spread like wildfire throughout the black community.

The immediate idea for a bus boycott seems to have come from a group called the Women's Political Council, but it immediately became the talk of the ministers and political leaders of the community. A meeting of leaders was scheduled for Friday evening, Dec. 2, which included Rev. David Abernathy, and Rev. Martin Luther King. King was a relatively new member of the Montgomery community at that time, and not noted for political action. On the agenda of the meeting, was the launching of a boycott of the city buses, to commence the day that Mrs. Parks had to appear for trial, Monday, Dec. 5.

The Dec. 2 meeting issued the following message, which was reproduced on leaflets, and then, fortuitously publicized on the front page of the major local newspaper (in an ill-fated attempt to discourage participation):

"Don't ride the bus to work, to town, to school, or any place Monday, December 5.

"Another Negro woman has been arrested and put in jail because she refused to give up her bus seat.

"Don't ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday. If you work, take a cab, or share a ride, or walk.

"Come to a mass meeting, Monday at 7:00 pm, at the Holt Street Baptist Church for further instruction."

On Monday, after publicity through Sunday sermons, leaflets, word of mouth, and the newspaper, the boycott was over 99% effective. The mass meeting that evening, which drew thousands more citizens than could fit in the church, voted to continue it until the following demands were met:

1. Courteous treatment by bus operators was guaranteed.

2. Passengers were seated on a first-come, first-serve basis.

3. Negro bus operated were employed on predominantly Negro routes.

From that time forward, under a newly established organization headed by a newly elected President, Dr. Martin Luther King, the Montgomery Improvement Association, the boycott continued for a full 381 days—more than a year—until the court appeal of Mrs. Parks' conviction led to a Supreme Court decision that nullified the segregation law. A victory for non-violence resistance was won, which would be repeated again and again in the years ahead.

The Deeper Issues

The Montgomery Bus Boycott reflected the intersection of two factors, that of leadership, and that of the social climate which had brought the African-American community to the point of being willing to brave the wrath of the authorities, and take action.

First and foremost, of course, there was Mrs. Parks, who explained her refusal to move this way: "It was a matter of dignity; I could not have faced myself and my people if I had moved." And alternately, "The only tired I was, was tired of giving in." In other words, Mrs. Parks made an individual decision that she was not going to act like a slave, and submit to injustice. This was a matter of personal courage, of leadership.

The second necessary element of leadership came from the clergy of Montgomery, which decided to act. Among this group of clergy, Reverend King came to the fore, and became the spokesman. But he was not the only one. There had been years before, when "professionals," such as ministers, teachers, lawyers, and others from the African-American community, had refused to buck the blatantly discriminatory laws, in the interest of holding on to their relatively more advantageous positions. This time, however, they decided to act.

The third element appears more elusive: the fact that the African-American population of Montgomery responded. This was not a foregone conclusion, and, actually shocked King and others, who were expecting 60% compliance with the call for the boycott, at best. Why were they ready? Perhaps it had to do with the fact that the Federal courts had begun to rule for desegregation, starting with the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Perhaps it had to do with the courage they saw shown by respected members of their community, who did have something to lose by acting. King himself can't explain it—except perhaps as God's providence.

From the standpoint of today, and the LaRouche movement's unique understanding of the tradition of the American Revolution within the history of our people, we can even better comprehend this sea-change in American politics, where people rallied behind leaders who called on them to put their lives on the line for those principles on which the nation was founded. At that time, the African-American population of Montgomery had the moral qualities to respond. Under today's conditions, where such action against economic and social injustice globally is long overdue, we can only fight to arouse the same sense of sublime morality in our fellow citizens, for their good, and that of our nation.  


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.