Much More Than a Street Name: The Story of Rosa Parks

Episode 51

Ray Notgrass: On today’s Exploring History podcast, we’ll look at the life of a simple, quiet, private citizen whose courageous act changed America.

Titus Anderson: [music in background] Welcome to Exploring History with Ray Notgrass, a production of Notgrass History.

Ray Notgrass: December 1, 1955, Montgomery, Alabama. She finished her work for the day and boarded a city bus to go home. In a few moments, the bus driver ordered her to give up her seat to another rider and move to the back of the bus. She refused, and the driver had her arrested. In this act, Rosa Parks sparked a protest that many people see as the beginning of the civil rights movement.

Plaque Voie Rosa Parks - Chevilly-Larue (FR94) - 2022-05-25 - 1
This sign for Rosa Parks Way in Chevilly-Larue, France, says that she was a committed figure in the fight against racial segrgation in the United States. Credit: Chabe01, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Rosa Parks was born in Alabama. After the eleventh grade, she had to quit school to take care of first her grandmother and then her mother. She later went back to school and received her high school diploma when she was 20. Mrs. Parks was 42 years old when she refused to give up her seat on the Montgomery bus. She was a seamstress at the Montgomery Fair department store. 

The struggle for equal rights for black Americans had been going on for decades when Mrs. Parks refused to give up her seat. Before December of 1955, Rosa Parks and her husband were already working to improve how black citizens were treated in Montgomery. She was secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the oldest civil rights groups in the country.

To appreciate Mrs. Parks’ action that day, we must put the scene in context. At the time, segregation was standard practice in some measure not only in the South but in all of America. Black Americans were relegated to their own seating areas in movie theaters and courtrooms. They were required to use specially marked public drinking fountains. Though the Supreme Court had handed down its landmark decision in Brown versus Board of Education just the year before, schools were still largely segregated. Earlier in 1955, the young black man Emmett Till had been murdered in Mississippi. Two white men were tried and found not guilty of the crime; and no one was ever convicted for it.

The issue of civil rights and equality for black Americans had been gaining attention in the late 1940s and early 1950s. During World War II, black servicemen and women fought against racism and discrimination in Europe and Asia. They returned home to face racism and discrimination in their own country. The GI Bill gave black soldiers the opportunity to further their education and opened up new possibilities for them. President Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the military in 1948, but implementation of that order had progressed slowly. In the late 1940s, the Supreme Court began hearing cases that involved discrimination in law schools and decided that such discrimination was unconstitutional.

City ordinances kept the Montgomery, Alabama, city bus system, which was actually operated by a private company, strictly segregated. The white section was at the front of the bus, and the specially marked “colored” section (so-called) was at the back. If a white passenger boarded a bus and the white section was full, a black person had to give up his or her seat and move to the back of the bus, even if that meant the black rider had to stand. Each row on the bus had four seats. If a white passenger wanted a seat in that row, all four black passengers had to move to the back of the bus because black people could not even sit in the same row as white people.

When a black person boarded the bus, he or she had to enter the door by the driver, pay the fare, then get off the bus and walk to a door further down the side of the bus to board in the “colored” section. In other words, a black passenger could not even walk past the white passengers on the bus. It sometimes happened that a black rider would pay the fare and step off the bus, and then the driver would drive off, leaving the black person standing on the sidewalk.

One irony in the arrangement was that the black section of a typical bus was much larger than the white section, because black persons accounted for about two-thirds of the riders on the bus system. Fewer black families owned cars than white families since black families were generally poorer than white families, so many black residents of Montgomery were dependent on buses for transportation to and from work and for most other transportation needs. This meant that the bus system was quite dependent on the fares paid by the people whom the bus system treated the worst.

In the months leading up to December 1955, other black riders had refused bus drivers’ instructions. Some had been arrested. Black residents of Montgomery had begun a few protests in the city, but they had had no effect.

On December 1, 1955, a white rider wanted a seat on the bus. The driver ordered the four people in the row where Rosa Parks was seated to move to the back of the bus. Three of them did, but Rosa refused. The driver told her, “If you don’t stand up, I’m going to have you arrested.” Rosa calmly replied, “You can do that.” And he did. The story later developed that Rosa refused to give up her seat because her feet were tired, but Rosa never said that or thought that. Looking back at the incident, she said, “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

Rosa Parks Sign

This is the spot on Dexter Avenue in Montgomery, Alabama, where Rosa Parks waited for the bus on that fateful day in 1955. The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Two city policemen were called to the bus. Mrs. Parks was taken to a police station, fingerprinted and booked on the charge of causing a public disturbance. Bail was posted for her, and thus she never went to jail. The authorities treated her with respect during the entire process. A trial was set for December 5, four days later. The trial lasted 30 minutes. Mrs. Parks was found guilty and fined $10 plus $4 in court costs. In a large mass meeting that evening, the black residents of Montgomery decided to stage a one day protest by not riding on Montgomery city buses the next day. When a large number of regular black riders stayed off the buses that day, protest leaders decided to continue the protest until the laws were changed and black persons could ride on Montgomery buses on an equal basis with white persons. Those who wanted to protest the treatment of black persons on city buses organized the Montgomery Improvement Association, or the MIA. Eloquent, 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr., a minister in the city, was selected as president and as spokesman for the protest.

The MIA had 3 requests or demands:

  • end segregation and allow seating on the buses in a first-come, first served manner regardless of the color of a person’s skin
  • hire black drivers (there had been none)
  • have white drivers treat black passengers with courtesy

The city government refused to consider these demands, so the MIA continued the protest.

The black community of Montgomery overwhelmingly supported the protest and refused to ride city buses. Black people who owned cars drove their cars in carpools to get black persons where they needed to go. Eighteen black-owned cab companies charged people the lower bus fare of 10 cents instead of the usual higher cab fare, which was set by law at a minimum of 45 cents. People also walked and even sometimes used mules and buggies to get where they needed to go. Some white women drove their black maids to and from their homes so that they could come to work.

Donations came in from around the country for churches to purchase station wagons. These were a great help in continuing the protest.

The controversy brought to light a 1921 law prohibiting conspiracies or organized boycotts that interfered with lawful business. Thus those involved in it called it a protest, not a boycott. Still, dozens were arrested for engaging in a boycott, including Dr. King.

City authorities made things difficult for the protesters. Police arrested cab drivers for charging fees lower than cabs were allowed to charge. People waiting for a carpool were arrested for loitering. Drivers were stopped for going one mile an hour over the speed limit. Insurance companies canceled coverage for the church-owned station wagons, so Dr. King arranged for Lloyd’s of London to insure the vehicles. Rosa Parks lost her job at the Montgomery Fair store. It was never made clear that she was let go because of her arrest and the subsequent protest, but we can safely assume that was the case. Rosa took in sewing to help make ends meet.

Rosa Parks was friends with Fred Gray, a young black attorney who was getting his practice started in Montgomery. They often had lunch together and discussed civil rights issues. They even had lunch together on December 1, 1955. Gray later said that Mrs. Parks never told him that she would refuse to give up her seat in a confrontation, but he suspected that she would.

Gray had good reason to think this. Twelve years earlier, Montgomery bus driver James Blake had ordered Rosa Parks off a bus when she refused to step off the bus after paying her fare in order to enter again through the rear entrance. The driver of the bus on which Rosa Parks rode on December 1, 1955, was the same James Blake. Fred Gray was Rosa Parks’ attorney at her trial on December 5.

Some episodes of violence against the protest took place during it. Two houses were bombed, including that of Dr. King. Random shots were fired.

As we mentioned, other black riders had been mistreated and discriminated against by the Montgomery bus company in the past. Fred Gray gathered four of these cases and appealed to a federal district court in Alabama to declare the Montgomery segregation laws unconstitutional because they denied people their right to equal justice under the law as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. In order to avoid any conflict of interpretation or attempts by the city to delay the case, Attorney Gray did not include Rosa Parks’ case in his appeal.

In April of 1956 the U.S. Supreme Court declared that segregation on buses in South Carolina was unconstitutional, but Montgomery continued its practice.

In June of 1956 the federal district court held that the Montgomery bus law that enforced segregation was unconstitutional. The city appealed, and the appeal went directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. On November 13, 1956, the Court upheld the district court’s verdict. The Montgomery City government refused to change its policy until it received official documentation from the Court. This happened on December 20, 1956, just over a year after Rosa Parks had been arrested. This was when the protest officially ended. On that day, Rosa Parks boarded a city bus and rode in a front seat.

Christian faith played a major role in the civil rights movement. Churches served as meeting places in many towns and cities. Preachers encouraged their members to protest peacefully and respectfully. Many of those who took part in civil rights protests did so because of their faith. Listen to these comments by Rosa Parks on how her faith guided her actions.

“My belief in Christ developed early in life. I was never pressed against my will to go to church. I always wanted to go. Daily devotions played an important part in my childhood. Prayer and the Bible became a part of my everyday thoughts and beliefs. I remember finding such comfort and peace while reading the Bible. Its teachings became a way of life and helped me in dealing with my day-to-day problems.”

“I am thankful to my mother, grandfather, and grandmother for bringing me closer to God by making the Bible a part of my life early on.”

“As a child I learned from the Bible to trust in God and not be afraid. I have always felt comforted by reading the Psalms, especially Psalms 23 and 27.”

(And may I note here that Psalm 27 begins with this verse:

The Lord is my light and my salvation;

Whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the strength of my life;

Of whom shall I be afraid?)

Now continuing with quotations by Mrs. Parks:

“I saw and heard so much as a child growing up with hate and injustice against black people. I learned to put my trust in God and to seek Him as my strength.”

“I felt the Lord would give me the strength to endure whatever I had to face. God did away with all my fear.”

“God provided me with the strength I needed at the precise time when conditions were ripe for change. I am thankful to Him every day that He gave me the strength not to move.”

And one final quotation from Mrs. Parks:

“During the civil rights movement, we were troubled by hatred. We would pray a lot. One thing we used to keep us going was the moving words of certain hymns, many of which had passed down from the slave days. They gave us a sense of togetherness with our people. Singing gave us the feeling that–with God’s help–we could overcome whatever we were facing.”

Because of death threats and other harassment, Rosa Parks and her husband moved to Detroit in 1957, where Rosa’s brother lived. She traveled to Washington, D.C., to take part in the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1965 Mrs. Parks went to work for Congressman John Conyers of Michigan. She worked in his office for 23 years until she retired in 1988. She continued to be involved in civil rights activities throughout her life.

Rosa Parks’ friend and attorney Fred Gray is another example of the importance of the Christian faith in the civil rights movement. As a young man Gray decided to go to law school because he had the goal, as he put it, to destroy everything segregated he could find. At various times he was the attorney for Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders. At the time of the Supreme Court decision in 1956, Gray credited what he called “divine guidance” for the Montgomery laws being changed. Gray was and still is a faithful Christian and part-time preacher in Churches of Christ. At 93 he is still active, speaking and doing some legal work. By the way, Gray grew up in Montgomery on Jeff Davis Avenue, which was named for the president of the Confederacy. In 2021 the city of Montgomery renamed the street Fred Gray Avenue. Gray received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2022.

The story of the bus that Rosa Parks boarded on December 1, 1955, bus number 2857, is a fascinating sidelight. The bus was retired in the early 1970s. Roy Summerford of Montgomery bought it. He and his descendants kept it in a field and stored lumber and tools in it. Summerford’s daughter and son-in-law inherited it when Mr. Summerford died. They decided to auction it off, but no official documentation existed to verify it as the Rosa Parks bus. However, they learned that the Montgomery bus station manager at the time of the protest, Charles Cummings, kept a scrapbook of articles related to what was happening. In a couple of places in the scrapbook, Cummings wrote “#2857” and “Blake/#2857.” At the time of the protest, Cummings thought what was happening was important, so he wanted to make a record of it. The bus was auctioned off in 2001, and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, bought it. The museum oversaw the restoration of the bus to its original condition, and it is on display at the museum today.

Rosa Parks Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony 1999

Rosa Parks (at podium) during her Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in 1999. Photo by Rebecca Roth, courtesy Library of Congress.

In 1996 President Bill Clinton presented Rosa Parks with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our country’s highest civilian honor. In 1999 she received the Congressional Gold Medal. When she died in 2005, she became the first woman to lie in honor in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

On December 1, 2005, the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ courageous action, President George W. Bush signed legislation authorizing a statue of Rosa Parks to be placed in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. Appropriately, the statue portrays Mrs. Parks seated.

Although the Montgomery Bus Protest was not the first attempt to gain equality for black Americans, it was a spark that ignited an intense decade of civil rights controversy and progress. We still see racial tensions flare up from time to time. but today’s America is a vastly different place from what it was on December 1, 1955. An historical marker in downtown Montgomery marks the spot where Rosa Parks stepped onto bus Number 2857, sat down, and changed history. She is rightly remembered as the mother of the modern civil rights movement.

In many cities a street is named Rosa Parks Boulevard. I wonder how many people see the sign for it and think, “Didn’t she have something to do with civil rights?” if there is even that much recognition. 

On the evening when the Montgomery bus protest began in 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to an assembled crowd. In his remarks he said, “If you will protest courageously and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say: there lived a great people–a black people–who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.” That is why there are Rosa Parks Boulevards, and that is why we keep her story alive by telling it on this podcast.

I’m Ray Notgrass. Thanks for listening.

Titus Anderson: This has been Exploring History with Ray Notgrass, a production of Notgrass History. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast in your favorite podcast app. And please leave a rating and review so that we can reach more people with our episodes. If you want to learn about new homeschool resources and opportunities from Notgrass History, you can sign up for our email newsletter at This program was produced by me, Titus Anderson. Thanks for listening!

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