What If

I Don’t Move to the Back of the Bus?

I Don’t Move to the Back of the Bus?

Rosa Parks brought together a unique blend of life experiences, a commitment to racial justice, and a flawless reputation to transform a single act of defiance into a defining moment for the modern American civil rights movement. The time had just come when I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed, I suppose. I had decided that I would have to know, once and for all, what rights I had as a human being, and a citizen. Rosa Parks

Sparking a Social Transformation

It’s one of the most famous moments in modern American civil rights history: On a chilly December evening in 1955, on a busy street in the capital of Alabama, a 42-year-old seamstress boarded a segregated city bus to return home after a long day of work, taking a seat near the middle, just behind the front “white” section. At the next stop, more passengers got on. When every seat in the white section was taken, the bus driver ordered the black passengers in the middle row to stand so a white man could sit. The seamstress refused.

Rosa Parks Bus

  Details
Artifact

Bus

Date Made

1948

Summary

Inside this bus on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a soft-spoken African-American seamstress, refused to give up her seat to a white man, breaking existing segregation laws. The flawless character and quiet strength she exhibited successfully ignited action in others. For this, many believe Rosa Parks' act was the event that sparked the Civil Rights movement.

Object ID

2001.154.1

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

With Liberty & Justice For All
 On Exhibit

at Henry Ford Museum in With Liberty & Justice for All

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

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Rosa Parks’ defiance of an unfair segregation law, which required black passengers to defer to any white person who needed a seat by giving up their own, forever changed race relations in America. She was not the first African American to do this. In fact, two other black women had previously been arrested on buses in Montgomery and were considered by civil rights advocates as potential touchpoints for challenging the law. However, both women were rejected because community leaders felt they would not gain support. Rosa Parks, with her flawless character, quiet strength, and moral fortitude, was seen as an ideal candidate. And those community leaders were right: Rosa Parks’ subsequent arrest by local police sparked a collective and sustained community response. As one young Montgomery resident said at the time, city officials had “messed with the wrong one now.” The boycott of public buses by blacks in Montgomery lasted 381 days, marking the country’s first large-scale demonstration against segregation.

The boycott ultimately led the U.S. Supreme Court to outlaw racial segregation on public buses in Alabama. It also spurred more non-violent protests in other cities and catapulted a young Baptist minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., into prominence as a leader of the civil rights movement. The movement and the laws it prompted, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, are one of the greatest social revolutions in modern American history.

President Obama, among many others, credits Rosa Parks’ “singular act of disobedience” with launching a civil rights movement that lasts to this day. “Rosa Parks tells us there’s always something we can do,” he said during a 2013 ceremony to unveil a statue of Parks at the U.S. Capitol, where she is honored alongside past presidents, members of Congress, and military leaders. “She tells us that we all have responsibilities, to ourselves and to one another.”

whatif_rosaparks_fullwidtharticle_01

Deciphering the Meaning of Uncommon Courage

Much has been written and celebrated about Rosa Parks’ courage. Type both her name and that enviable attribute into Google and you’ll turn up more than 500,000 sources—everything from biographies (Courageous Citizen, A Life of Courage, and The Courage to Make a Difference, to name a few) to TV and film documentaries and historical and journalistic accounts. When the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor in 2013, on what would have been her 100th birthday (an event that took place at The Henry Ford as part of a National Day of Courage celebration), the design prominently featured “courage” alongside her portrait.

If we travel back in time to the December evening in 1955 when Rosa Parks boarded that city bus, we can begin to glimpse just why her courage was so extraordinary. We know from her account of the event that she made her defiant decision in an instant. It took tremendous courage. But it took even more courage for her to stand by her decision in the minutes, days, and years that followed.

To understand why, board bus No. 2857 assigned to the Cleveland Avenue route that December night. That very bus, painstakingly restored, is now parked inside Henry Ford Museum, and open to everyone. Enter through the front door and picture the scene from years ago: Most of the front 10 seats reserved for whites are occupied, as are the 10 seats at the rear marked with a sign for the “colored” section. See the overhead light shining down on the green-cushioned seat in the middle? Settle yourself here, just as Rosa Parks did.

We know from many accounts that Rosa Parks recognized the bus driver—he had humiliated her and other black riders over the years. Twelve years earlier, in fact, she’d even had a personal confrontation with him when he demanded that she exit the bus and board through the rear door (on that occasion, she had relented; when she stepped off, the driver promptly sped away before she could board in the rear). She also knew that this man, who threatened to have her arrested, carried a pistol in his holster. She was aware of recent racial atrocities, including the mistreatment of another black woman, Claudette Colvin, for not giving up her seat, and the death earlier that summer of 14-year-old Emmett Till from a lynching.

Let your imagination revisit the moments that unfolded as the flustered bus driver pointedly asked her, “Are you going to stand up?”

As one of her biographers, Douglas Brinkley, observed, Rosa Parks in that moment felt fearless, bold, and serene. She looked straight at the bus driver and said, “No.”

Three other black riders sat in the same row, one next to Rosa Parks, the other two across the aisle. When the bus driver again demanded that all four passengers give up their seats, the three other riders reluctantly got up. All the black riders were now at the back, all the whites at the front. Rosa Parks sat between them, a brave solitary figure marking the painful boundary between races. “As I sat there, I tried not to think about what might happen,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I knew that anything was possible. I could be manhandled or beaten. I could be arrested. People have asked me if it occurred to me then that I could be the test case the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] had been looking for. I did not think about that at all. In fact if I had let myself think too deeply about what might happen to me, I might have gotten off the bus.”

The time had just come when I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed, I suppose. I had decided that I would have to know, once and for all, what rights I had as a human being, and a citizen.
Rosa Parks (February 4, 1913–October 24, 2005)

In that moment between “might have” and “didn’t,” her courage began to transform into something extraordinary. As Brinkley observed, “A lifetime’s education in justice—from her grandfather’s nightly vigils to the murder of Emmett Till—had strengthened her resolve to act when the time came. What arose in Parks on that fateful evening was her belief in what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., often said: that ‘some of us must bear the burden of trying to save the soul of America.’” Rosa Parks later put it this way: “When I made that decision, I knew that I had the strength of my ancestors with me."

Tracing the Long History of Racial Inequality

"To understand the real risks Rosa Parks faced in refusing to give up her seat,” says Donna Braden, Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford, “we must explore the nature of segregated travel in the ‘Jim Crow South.'" “Jim Crow” laws enforcing racial segregation in southern U.S. states were first enacted in the 1880s by angry and resentful whites against freed African Americans. Favoring whites and repressing blacks became an institutionalized form of inequality. And, by 1896, with the Plessy v. Ferguson case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states had the legal power to require segregation between blacks and whites.

"Negro Motorist Green Book, An International Travel Guide," 1949

  Details

"Negro Motorist Green Book, An International Travel Guide," 1949

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Guidebook

Date Made

1949

Summary

Before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, African Americans faced persistent racial discrimination when traveling. It could be difficult to find restaurants, hotels, or other amenities. The Negro Motorist Green Book, begun in 1936, became a guide for the African American traveler. This 1949 edition listed travel information that would keep the traveler "from running into difficulties [and] embarrassments," and would "make his trips more enjoyable."

Object ID

87.135.1736

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of the Automobile Club of Michigan.

Driving America
 On Exhibit

at Henry Ford Museum in Driving America

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

"Negro Motorist Green Book, An International Travel Guide," 1949

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Travel in the segregated South was particularly humiliating for African Americans, beginning with railroads back in the 19th century, where blacks of all economic classes were generally relegated to the most uncomfortable cars just behind the locomotive—and also, should a collision or boiler explosion occur, the most dangerous. With the arrival of affordable automobiles, it seemed southern blacks might escape the indignities of long-distance rail travel. But that didn’t happen: service stations and roadside restrooms were usually closed to them. As a result, black motorists often resorted to stashing buckets or portable toilets in their trunks. They also brought food along with them, since many diners and restaurants turned away black customers. There was similar discrimination with roadside motels, and blacks had to depend on the hospitality of fellow blacks or chance the discovery of a “Negro” rooming house.

Restrooms
From the late 19th through the mid-20th centuries, segregation laws in Southern states separated African Americans and whites in almost every aspect of public life—from railroad cars and schools to restrooms and drinking fountains. Varying from state to state, these laws were supposed to establish facilities that were "separate but equal." In reality, these were almost never equal.

The laws on city transit systems separating blacks and whites were equally humiliating—and often arbitrary. By 1905, every southern state had outlawed blacks from sitting next to whites on trolleys and streetcars, while it was left to the whims of individual conductors whether black passengers were ordered to move from this or that seat. By the 1950s, black passengers were enduring the same unjust treatment by city bus drivers. Bus drivers could demand more seats for whites at any time and in any number. And drivers often forced black riders, once they had paid their fare, to get off the bus and re-enter through the back door—sometimes driving away without them, as had happened to Rosa Parks. Those who didn’t comply with these rules could be verbally abused, slapped, knocked on the floor, pushed out the door, beaten, or even killed.

As stories of abusive drivers and humiliating incidents continued to spread, anger in the black community grew. However, most of the time, the indignities went unchallenged. “Expecting African Americans to resist these long-established laws and traditions,” Braden notes, “meant asking them to risk great harm and to summon an extraordinary amount of personal courage.”

The Legacy of One Courageous Woman

Rosa Parks' awareness of social injustice started at an early age. Growing up in Alabama, where she was born in 1913, she hated the disrespectful way that whites often treated black people. Her grandfather, a former slave, instilled a sense of pride and independence in her. Her life took a radical turn when she married Raymond Parks, a self-educated activist (she once called him the “first real activist I ever met”) who encouraged her to work as a secretary at the local branch of the NAACP. Contrary to early portraits of Parks as a timid, tired seamstress who became an accidental figure in sparking the civil rights movement, she had years of training and experience as a civil rights advocate challenging racial injustice.

Rosa Parks
This famous photograph was taken on December 21, 1956, a day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Montgomery's segregated bus system illegal.

As historian Jeanne Theoharis notes in her substantive biography, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, “If we follow the actual Rosa Parks—see her decades of community activism before the boycott; take notice of the determination, terror, and loneliness of her bus stand and her steadfast work during the year of the boycott; and see her political work continue for decades following the boycott’s end—we encounter a much different ‘mother of the civil rights movement.’”

Not long after that December day in 1955, Rosa Parks told a radio interviewer that she had acted because the “time had just come when I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed, I suppose. I had decided that I would have to know, once and for all, what rights I had as a human being, and a citizen.”

She stood alone on that day in her willingness to face great risks, just as she did in the years after as she continued to face great burdens. She and her husband lost their jobs, she received threatening phone calls, and her marriage became strained. In 1957, she fled Montgomery for Detroit, where she eventually found steady employment working for Congressman John Conyers until her retirement in 1988. It wasn’t until nearly three decades after her bus stand that she was recognized as a significant figure in the civil rights movement, as notable as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rosa Parks is not an innovator in the traditional sense, nor would she have considered herself to be one. Yet, her simple, spontaneous act embodies the notion of social transformation—that a new idea or way of doing things can have such far-reaching impact that it renders old ways obsolete and radically alters how people think about themselves, their social interactions, and their place in the larger world.

Artifacts Related to This StoryRelated Artifacts

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Louisville and Nashville Railroad Restroom Sign, 1929

  Details

Louisville and Nashville Railroad Restroom Sign, 1929

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Sign (Notice)

Date Made

1929

Summary

From the late 19th through the mid-20th centuries, segregation laws in Southern states separated African Americans and whites in almost every aspect of public life -- from railroad cars and schools to restrooms and drinking fountains. Varying from state to state, these laws were supposed to establish facilities that were "separate but equal." In reality, these were almost never equal.

Creators

B & J Signs 

Place of Creation

United States 

Object ID

89.210.1

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

With Liberty & Justice For All
 On Exhibit

at Henry Ford Museum in With Liberty & Justice for All

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

Louisville and Nashville Railroad Restroom Sign, 1929

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

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Button, "You Are the Spark That Started Our Freedom Movement. Thank You Sister Rosa Parks," circa 1988

  Details

Button, "You Are the Spark That Started Our Freedom Movement. Thank You Sister Rosa Parks," circa 1988

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Button (Information artifact)

Date Made

circa 1988

Summary

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her courageous act of protest was considered the spark that ignited the Civil Rights movement. For decades, Martin Luther King Jr.'s fame overshadowed hers. But by the time of this button, Parks was beginning to receive long-overdue recognition.

Object ID

2002.191.1

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

With Liberty & Justice For All
 On Exhibit

at Henry Ford Museum in With Liberty & Justice for All

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

Button, "You Are the Spark That Started Our Freedom Movement. Thank You Sister Rosa Parks," circa 1988

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

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  Details

Record Album, "The Great March to Freedom: Rev. Martin Luther King Speaks," June 23, 1963

  Details

Record Album, "The Great March to Freedom: Rev. Martin Luther King Speaks," June 23, 1963

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Phonograph record

Date Made

1963

Object ID

2006.6.1

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Location

Not on exhibit to the public.

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

Record Album, "The Great March to Freedom: Rev. Martin Luther King Speaks," June 23, 1963

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Button, 1968-1970

  Details

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Button, 1968-1970

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Button (Information artifact)

Date Made

1968-1970

Summary

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. led a non-violent campaign for civil rights. His leadership during the turbulent 1950s and 1960s urged on legislative and social change. This button -- created after King's assassination in 1968 -- commemorates his efforts to secure freedom and justice for African Americans.

Creators

AAA Novelty 

Object ID

94.87.1

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

With Liberty & Justice For All
 On Exhibit

at Henry Ford Museum in With Liberty & Justice for All

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Button, 1968-1970

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

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  Details

Rosa Parks Visiting Mattox House in Greenfield Village, 1992

  Details

Rosa Parks Visiting Mattox House in Greenfield Village, 1992

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Photographic print

Summary

Civil Rights pioneer Rosa Parks visited Greenfield Village with a group of students during a "Freedom Tour" sponsored by the Raymond and Rosa Parks Foundation. She posed here in the Mattox House, the 1930s Georgia home of an African-American family, after she spoke to students. That day, many youngsters who recognized her from school lessons also rushed to greet her.

Object ID

P.B.108917.7

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Location

By Request in the Benson Ford Research Center

Related Objects

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

Rosa Parks Visiting Mattox House in Greenfield Village, 1992

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

VIEW CALENDAR

  Details

Rosa Parks Bus

  Details
Artifact

Bus

Date Made

1948

Summary

Inside this bus on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a soft-spoken African-American seamstress, refused to give up her seat to a white man, breaking existing segregation laws. The flawless character and quiet strength she exhibited successfully ignited action in others. For this, many believe Rosa Parks' act was the event that sparked the Civil Rights movement.

Object ID

2001.154.1

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

With Liberty & Justice For All
 On Exhibit

at Henry Ford Museum in With Liberty & Justice for All

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

VIEW CALENDAR

  Details

Discussion Questions

  • What is social transformation?
  • How did Rosa Parks spark a social transformation?
  • What do you think were the greatest risks she faced when she refused to give up her bus seat on December 1, 1955?
  • Who do you consider a present-day social innovator and what changes have they contributed to?
  • Do you think you can inspire a social transformation like Rosa Parks? Why or why not?

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