December 1, 1955: “Why do you push us around?” Rosa Parks asked the cop. (Anyone know the answer?)

Mrs. Rosa Parks asked a question of the policeman who arrested her for refusing to move to the back of the bus. In 2014, it’s a chilling question, to which we have no good answer.

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted, Library of Congress

Mrs. Parks being fingerprinted in Montgomery, Alabama; photo from New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, Library of Congress

Rosa Parks: “Why do you push us around?”

Officer: “I don’t know but the law is the law and you’re under arrest.”

From Rosa Parks with Gregory J. Reed, Quiet Strength
(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1994), page 23.

Photo: Mrs. Parks being fingerprinted in Montgomery, Alabama; photo from New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, Library of Congress

Today in History at the Library of Congress provides the simple facts:

On the evening of December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, an African American, was arrested for disobeying an Alabama law requiring black passengers to relinquish seats to white passengers when the bus was full. Blacks were also required to sit at the back of the bus. Her arrest sparked a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system and led to a 1956 Supreme Court decision banning segregation on public transportation.

Rosa Parks made a nearly perfect subject for a protest on racism. College-educated, trained in peaceful protest at the famous Highlander Folk School, Parks was known as a peaceful and respected person. The sight of such a proper woman being arrested and jailed would provide a schocking image to most Americans. Americans jolted awake.

Often lost in the retelling of the story are the threads that tie together the events of the civil rights movement through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. As noted, Parks was a trained civil rights activist. Such training in peaceful and nonviolent protest provided a moral power to the movement probably unattainable any other way. Parks’ arrest was not planned, however. Parks wrote that as she sat on the bus, she was thinking of the tragedy of Emmet Till, the young African American man from Chicago, brutally murdered in Mississippi early in 1955. She was thinking that someone had to take a stand for civil rights, at about the time the bus driver told her to move to allow a white man to take her seat. To take a stand, she kept her seat.

African Americans in Montgomery organized a boycott of the Montgomery bus system. This was also not unique, but earlier bus boycotts are unremembered. A bus boycott in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, earlier in 1955 did not produce nearly the same results.

The boycott organizers needed a place to meet, a large hall. The biggest building in town with such a room was the Dexter Street Baptist Church. At the first meeting on December 5, it made sense to make the pastor of that church the focal point of the boycott organizing, and so the fresh, young pastor, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was thrust into civil rights organizing as president, with Ralph Abernathy as program director. They called their group the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). When their organizing stretched beyond the city limits of Montgomery, the group became the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Litigation on the boycott went all the way to the Supreme Court (Browder v. Gale). The boycotters won. The 381-day boycott was ended on December 21, 1956, with the desegregation of the Montgomery bus system.

Sources for lesson plans and projects:

Yes, this is mostly an encore post.  Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.


Tip of the old scrub brush to Slacktivist, who gave this post a nice plug.

7 Responses to December 1, 1955: “Why do you push us around?” Rosa Parks asked the cop. (Anyone know the answer?)

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Chance favors the prepared mind, the scientists say.

    Yes, Rosa Parks had been trained at the Highland Center. She was active in NAACP. She was aware of the arrests earlier that year in Montgomery, and in other southern cities (Baton Rouge, for one).

    But I think it was much the spur of the moment. On one occasion she spoke of her thoughts that night, specifically about how Emmet Till’s murder had gone un-corrected by the local justice systems, and how it was time to step up the action. In her last few years she was always clear that when she said she was “tired,” she was tired of the failure of the U.S. to offer equal civil rights.

    But, the local civil rights community was caught off guard. They did not have plans to support the perfect test case, and there was a real scramble to get her bailed out. From everything I’ve read, the selection of the church where they met was done solely on the basis of its having the largest sanctuary, and the consequent selection of its new pastor as the contact person was solely because that church had an office with a phone. That the new, young pastor happened to be a guy also trained in civil action, and a self-appointed acolyte of Gandhi, was gravy. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr.

    The boycott had not been planned in advance.

    So much of the entire episode, from arrest to victory at the Supreme Court, was driven by what happened moments before; decisions were based on what was possible, and guided perhaps by the advance training participants had.

    And as you note, it still took a brave person to do what Rosa Parks did. Throughout the South, in 1955, other African Americans had stood up, and died for having done so.

    It’s a great story. Could it have happened earlier, with different players? Maybe. Could it happen again? Why should it have to?

    That’s why we study history, isn’t it.

    Thanks for coming by, Jake. Drop in more often.


  2. Jake says:

    The actual factors in the resistence of Rosa Parks are difficult to tease out of two different popular narratives. The popular myth (ever so easy to explain in school lessons!) is that she was tired and didn’t want to move. The demythologizing narrative is that she was deliberately set up and instructed to provoke an outrage (for bonus demonization points, trace the orders back to the Communist Party!). It seems like the truth is somewhere in the middle.

    The NAACP was definitely aware of the mobilization potential in the injustice of bus segregation, and were ready to move when the opportunity presented itself. They nearly did jump when Claudette Colvin was arrested more than half a year earlier, and seem to have desisted only because Colvin didn’t present the image they wanted.

    Point being, Rosa Parks was active in the NAACP and knew their long-term plans. Her resistance wasn’t a completely spur-of-the-moment choice — she knew that the civil rights movement was, as it were, ready to move. I very much doubt, though, that she was actually specifically expected by the NAACP to go to bat for them on this one. I’d believe that she suddenly decided at the time that this was where she’d take a stand, as she relates. But fortunately, she knew that this was a stand which she, or someone like her, was expected to take and that she would not be left to take her stand alone. As I said, truth is somewhere between the two narratives.

    It doesn’t, or shouldn’t, affect our assessment of the bravery or historical significance of her resistance, mind, but it feels like it’s a story which often gets mistold.


  3. I read that the exact same bus driver had thrown (not literally, of course) her off the bus some years before for not giving up her seat. This time she quietly declined to give up her seat or get off the bus and was arrested.


  4. Ed Darrell says:

    Tying even more historical threads into the tapestry:


  5. Ed Darrell says:

    Teachers, click over to see the resources mustered for this lesson plan:


  6. Ed Darrell says:

    Thank you, John Lewis:


  7. Mikels Skele says:

    Changing culture is, unfortunately, like steering the Titanic. It goes frustratingly slowly.

    Liked by 1 person

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