This year marks the 52nd anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of l964, the monumental law that changed the country by outlawing segregation in public accommodations: housing, libraries, restaurants, water fountains, movie theaters, court rooms, bathrooms, trains — and buses.
Let’s look back at how this country was before l964 and put it in a human perspective. For sixty years, after the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in l896, segregation prevailed by law (dejure) throughout the South and by custom (de facto) throughout most of the North. In Plessy, the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” was an acceptable standard, in that case on a Louisiana railway car. Only Justice John Marshall Harlan was ahead of his time and wrote in his dissent that The Constitution should be “color blind.”
The doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ spread rapidly through Jim Crow laws in Southern and border states and through norms of behavior in the North as well. In Montgomery, Alabama, there were specific rules for segregation on the buses. Blacks were required to board the bus through the front door, pay their ten cent fares, then get off and walk outside to the back door to re-board and take their seats in the ‘Colored’ section. If the front ‘White’ section filled up, blacks were required to give up their seats and move farther to the back of the bus. A black person was also not allowed to sit across the aisle from a white person. That was the law.
In Montgomery, two thirds of the bus passengers were black, riding back and forth to work each day. 17,500 blacks used the buses twice a day. There was deep resentment toward the seating policies as well as toward the racist behavior and language of the drivers, all of whom were white. The riders were often called names, “black cow”, “black ape” and the “N” word. And drivers would at times leave before the riders who had already paid their fares could reach the back door of the bus.
The story of Rosa Parks has grown into legend. She was a 42 year old black woman who worked as a seamstress for the Montgomery Fair department store. She rode the Cleveland Avenue bus every day. On December 1,1955, she boarded the bus at the end of her work day and took a seat in the fifth row — the first row of the ‘Colored Section’. The driver was the same driver who had put her off a bus 12 years earlier for refusing to get off and re-board through the back door. She has commented, “He was still mean-looking.”
The white section became full and she was ordered to move back to give up her seat to a white passenger. At that point, Rosa Parks refused to move. She sat quietly, when the bus driver warned her, “Well, I’m going to have you arrested.” She replied, “You may go on and do so.” Later in her own testimony, she said that her feet were not aching. “I was no more tired than usual. I did not get on the bus to get arrested. I got on the bus to go home.”
Rosa Parks was arrested and bail was posted that evening by Clifford Durr, the white lawyer whose wife had employed her as a seamstress. She discussed what had happened with her husband and mother and decided to challenge the constitutionality of Montgomery’s segregation laws. During a midnight meeting of the Women’s Political Council, 35,000 handbills were copied to distribute the next morning. The message was straightforward: “We… are asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial… You can afford to stay out of school for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But, please, children and grown-ups, don’t ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off the buses Monday.” And so began the Montgomery bus boycott that was to last over a year.
On Monday, the thousands of black riders stayed off the buses, walking or catching one of the black cabs that charged them only 10 cents, the standard bus fare. Rosa Parks appeared in court, for a trial that lasted 30 minutes. She was, of course, found guilty and fined. That evening, the young Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a crowd at the Holt Street Baptist Church. He was not famous yet, but he spoke with that soaring cadence and voice that would soon be well known to millions across the country. Of Rosa Parks, he said simply, “There comes a time that people get tired.” She stood, but did not speak. Her actions on the bus had said all that was needed to be said.
In the days and weeks and months that followed, the city of Montgomery tried every device to break the boycott. They declared the black cab drivers off limits in charging 10 cents a fare. They used every manner of intimidation and restrictive measure. They were not successful. Men, women and children walked in every kind of weather. White employers sent drivers to pick up their household workers. Car pools were used whenever possible. And legal recourse was taken against the city to overturn the segregated public transportation and to challenge the policy of hiring only white drivers. The case moved up the ladder of appeals courts until the Supreme Court ruled on December 21, l956 that segregation on Montgomery public transit vehicles was unconstitutional. A picture of Rosa Parks in Montgomery that day is of a dignified woman with a glowing smile of triumph lighting up her face.
The victory in Montgomery led the way to protests throughout the South in other areas of public accommodation. The passive resistance of Martin Luther King Jr. stirred people’s imagination and courage. The ‘sit-ins’ at the lunch counters withstood abuse to prove their right to be served. Freedom Riders survived beatings and risked their lives riding buses through the deep South. The Civil Rights Movement unrolled across the nation, a story of fortitude and resolve in the face of entrenched resistance. The peaceful March on Washington in l963 brought hundreds of thousands to The Mall to hear King give his “I Have A Dream” speech. In 1964, under the leadership of President Lyndon Johnson, Congress passed the historic Civil Rights Act that changed the country profoundly. Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott sparked the way forward to a “color blind” Constitution