An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Life and Times of Rosa Parks

Jul 27, 2018 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. There are certainly many, many individuals that should receive recognition for their part in the Civil Rights movement. But the name of Rosa Parks is one that most Americans know well. But for precision, can you tell us the exact place, and time of the famous “bus incident”?

The “bus incident” took place in the early evening of December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama. Rosa Parks, who worked at the Montgomery Fair department store, had gotten on board a Montgomery city bus when her work day ended, and she took a seat in the first row of seats reserved for people of color. As the bus proceeded on its route, more passengers began to board, and the section reserved for whites became full. When another white passenger boarded the bus, the driver told the riders in the first row reserved for people of color to give up their seats and make their way further back.

Three of the African-Americans immediately did so, but the 42-year-old Parks refused to comply.

In one respect, this defiance did represent a violation of Montgomery city law, which stated that the front section of a bus would be reserved for whites. Another portion of the city code, on the other hand, said that a bus driver could not compel people to give up their seats.

In practice, however, bus drivers in Montgomery did routinely ask African-Americans to vacate their seats when the white section filled to capacity. James Blake, the bus driver that day, used that precedent to make his demand on Parks. When Parks refused to yield, Blake chose to keep his bus parked at the stop, and went to call for police help.

Eventually, two police officers investigated the situation, and decided to arrest Rosa Parks. Other African-Americans had suffered similar indignities, but what made Parks’ case unique came from the fact that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) became involved. This gave the “bus incident” the potential to become a history-changing moment, as the ensuing Montgomery Bus Boycott forced Montgomery to end its discriminatory seating practices.

2. Some texts call her “the mother of the freedom movement.” What other events stand out in her life?

Interestingly enough, Rosa Parks and James Blake had had a similar encounter a number of years before the famous “bus incident.” In 1943, Parks had gotten on board a Montgomery city bus on a chilly day, and had deposited her coins in the fare-collection machine. At that point, protocol required her to walk back out the front door of the bus, and then board again through the rear door. Not wanting to go back out into the cold, Parks chose to simply make her way to the back.

The bus driver—the aforementioned James Blake—refused to close the door, choosing instead to yank on her sleeve in attempt to move her back to the front door. After a few moments, Parks relented, and exited the front door. At that point, Blake closed the door and drove off, leaving Parks at the stop. Twelve years later, Parks decided to defy Blake rather than submit to his will.

3. Did she ever write or do public speaking?

Immediately after the “bus incident” and the ensuing Montgomery Bus Boycott, Parks became identified with the Civil Rights movement. Accordingly, she received many invitations to speak on the subject. In addition, she actively participated in events associated with the movement.

In 1965, for example, she joined forces again with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the Montgomery-to-Selma March. During the 1970s, she took a brief hiatus from speaking engagements to tend to her ailing family members, but in the 1980s she became engaged in the Civil Rights movement again. Along the way, she found the time to write her autobiography in 1992.

She followed that with another book about herself three years later. In addition to Civil Rights, Parks also became involved in other causes, most notably working to better the situation for political prisoners. Parks continued her work until finally her deteriorating health forced her to curtail her activities as the 1980s drew to a close.

4. Ironically, she was charged with “civil disobedience” for failing to give up her seat on the bus. Why is this somewhat paradoxical?

Actually, the police officers charged her with violating chapter 6, section 11 of the Montgomery city code. This provision required people riding a city bus to give up their seats if directed to do so by an employee of the Montgomery bus company. A modern day website chose to use the term “civil obedience” to describe the decision of Rosa Parks to refuse to obey that law, which is why many people today think that “civil disobedience” was the charge against her.

The term “civil disobedience” (which, ironically, the American essayist Henry David Thoreau had coined in the 19th century) is ubiquitous in today’s day and age, but it had just started to come into use in American society in the 1950s. Therefore, authorities would not have charged her with that offense, but the term does describe perfectly what she had actually done that December day.

5. What were her other contributions?

Rosa Parks received numerous awards during her lifetime, ranging from the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the Congressional Gold Medal. She has buildings, schools, and roadways named for her. OutKast, one of the most influential Hip-Hop groups of all time, used her name for the title of one of their songs. For good reason, then, Time magazine named her one of the twentieth century’s most influential Americans.

6. What have I neglected to ask?

After the “bus incident,” someone asked Rosa Parks if she refused to give up her seat because she was tired. She replied “No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” It is precisely that type of decision, made by courageous individuals willing to take a stand, that have helped make the United States a great nation.

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