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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott today is February 14. And, apparently it's a day that is supposed to be about true love and devotion, when in reality, it's all about making sure that you buy jewelry, roses, and chocolate hearts filled with Reese's Peanut Butter.

But, in today's blog, I want to do my Thursday Diary Entry on somebody incredibly special. Someone whose face has been associated with the modern civil rights movement. Someone who stood up for her rights, and ended up changing the course of history forever.

And, if I ever fell in love with someone who had the same strong determination for what she believed in...I could consider myself lucky.

February 14, 2013

It has been quite a long time since I have boarded a bus. Do you know that?

Of course, I currently live in a small community where bus service runs for a limited amount of time (I can't say for certain, but I'm probably not wrong in saying that buses in town rarely run past seven o'clock in the evening on weekdays). And besides, in my town, I can get to almost anywhere I want to go in as little as half an hour by walking.

Back in the days when I used to live in Ottawa, Ontario (circa 2001), I would ride OC Transpo nearly every day to get to where I wanted to go. It was a really easy system to navigate back in those days (though I am sure that there will be some who will disagree with me). You would give the bus driver your bus fare (or bus pass if you owned one), and you would get a ticket. That ticket doubled as a bus transfer pass, so that if you needed to change bus routes during your trip, you could within a two-hour window.

Some people in Ottawa really hated taking the bus, and you could definitely see it in their faces as they squeezed into the available seats. I can understand, having been one who frequently had to stand in the aisles of the bus because there weren't enough seats available. But the thing is that I didn't mind. It was cool to look around the bus and see people of all different backgrounds chatting away.

It just seems so hard to believe that there was once a time in history in which that wasn't always the case.

Take the city of Montgomery, Alabama for example in...oh, let's go with 1955. Back in those days, the ugliness known as segregation was rearing its ugly head. Kids who were white could ride the bus to their schools while black kids had to walk. There were separate eating establishments and boutiques for people depending on what colour their skin was. Believe it or not, even drinking fountains were segregated. It was not a great time period in history, and I can't even begin to imagine how hard it was for people who were of African-American descent back in those days.

Even seats on buses were assigned according to race. In most cases, the front seats of the bus were reserved for white people, while people of colour were seated at the back of the bus. Most of the times, this went without incident, but if more white passengers were on the bus at the time, then the sign that divided the seats was pushed back by the bus driver in order to accommodate the white riders. If you happened to be black, you did not get the same treatment. In fact, black passengers had to enter the bus through the rear door instead of the side door! It seems absolutely crazy to picture passengers boarding a bus from the rear, but back in the 1950s, it was normal. It was unfortunately also normal for black passengers to be thrown off the bus if the bus was overcrowded.

And, this was the case until December 1, 1955, when one woman decided that she wasn't going to take it anymore.

Mind you, this was not the first instance in which Rosa Parks fought back against the unjust laws surrounding the public transit system and its laws in Montgomery, Alabama. Twelve years earlier, in 1943, a thirty-year-old Parks boarded the bus, paid her fare, and sat down in the section reserved for black passengers. However, she had entered through the side door of the bus instead of the rear entrance, and the bus driver on duty, James F. Blake, told her to follow the city rules. Parks left the bus and approached the back of the bus...only for the bus to pull away before she could get back inside. She ended up having to walk home in the rain. Nice, huh?

Well, wouldn't you know it? A dozen years later, and she found herself once again on a bus driven by James F. Blake. And, this time around, she was not going to let him walk all over her.

On that fateful December day in 1955, Parks once more paid her fare and sat down in the row that was directly behind the “whites-only” section of the bus. During the course of the ride, the seats that were reserved for white passengers filled up very quickly, and by the time that the bus pulled up for its third stop of the route, there was a problem.

The bus driver had noticed that the entire white section of the bus was filled, and that two or three white passengers were left standing in the aisle of the bus. So, Blake got up once the bus was stopped, moved the “Coloured People Only” sign back a row (the same row that Parks was seated in), and ordered the four black passengers in the row to give up their seats so that the white passengers could sit down, keeping in mind that if any of the black passengers refused to give up their seats, they could be arrested and sent to jail.

With the threat of an arrest record, three of the four passengers immediately forfeited their seats. Wanna take a stab as to which one didn't move?

Rosa Parks had just worked a super long day. She was not about to give up her seat as quickly as the others. If anything, she moved to a window seat so that it would make it harder to get out! Blake was furious, and practically ordered Parks to give up her seat, but she was not going to. She was tired of being pushed around, and she was tired of having to settle for second-best because of the colour of her skin. She wanted equality for everyone.

Blake even threatened to call the police on Parks if she didn't move. And when Parks held firm on her stance, that's exactly what Blake did. She later explained in her autobiography “My Story” that the reason she chose not to give up her seat wasn't because she was physically tired. She was tired of giving in to the social stigma that seemed to be present throughout the Southern states during the mid-1950s.

Parks was charged with a violation of the segregation law of the Montgomery city code (even though she technically didn't break a law as she was sitting in a seat reserved for a black person before the bus driver moved the sign), and you can see her mugshot above.

But if you think the story ends're mistaken.

The arrest of Rosa Parks prompted the event known as the “Montgomery Bus Boycott”.

The plans for the boycott began preparations on December 4, 1955 (three days after Parks was arrested). Jo Ann Robinson (a member of the Women's Political Council) mimeographed several thousand copies of the paper announcing the boycott, and the paper was distributed around black churches. The announcement also made the pages of “The Montgomery Advertiser”, and the people who lead the boycott made it clear that it would continue until black bus drivers were hired, and until seating was given on a first come, first serve basis.

On December 5, 1955 (the same day as Rosa's trial), the boycott officially began, and although there was a bad rainstorm that day, African-American passengers stayed off the buses. Some carpooled, some took cabs, but the majority of the people opted to use their feet. Some people even walked to their destinations for miles and miles, just to support Rosa Parks!

And, do you know just how long that boycott lasted? Three hundred and eighty-one days! That's just a little over one year! Can you imagine just how much money that system lost because of this? Kind of makes one rethink the whole idea of segregation, doesn't it?

In the end, the boycott was well worth it. On December 21, 1956, a new law was passed, which allowed Montgomery's public transit system to become completely integrated. Of course, while Rosa Parks' standoff on the bus kickstarted the movement, it was helped along by the Montgomery Improvement Association, which among others had a future civil rights activist on its team...Martin Luther King Jr.

As for Parks...well, she was charged with disorderly conduct, and violating a local ordinance, and after a trial that lasted a mere half hour, she was fined ten dollars, plus an additional four more for the trial cost. But her arrest also helped integrate an entire city's transportation system. So, I suppose it was a nice tradeoff.

Now, Rosa and her husband had to leave Montgomery in 1957 after they both lost their jobs because of the case...but they eventually settled in Detroit, Michigan, where Parks lived the rest of her life. She suffered a lot of hardships during her time in Michigan (including losing her husband, brother, and mother all died within a very short period), but she was always a crusader for the civil rights movement. She worked for an African-American United States Representative named John Conyers as his secretary until the 1980s, and co-founded the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation in 1980. She was a co-founder of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development in 1987, and published two memoirs in 1992 and 1995, detailing her life and times. I would actually encourage everyone to read both books, because she was one interesting lady.

Perhaps one of the coolest stories that I remember hearing happened in 1994, when the Ku Klux Klan wanted to purchase a stretch of Interstate 55 for clean-up. The state government of Missouri couldn't refuse the KKK's sponsorship...but they could decide what to name the stretch of road. And, so, the stretch of highway was renamed “Rosa Parks Highway”!

How's that for irony?

Rosa Parks passed away of natural causes in Detroit, Michigan on October 24, 2005 at the age of 92. And, in those ninety-two years, she helped change the face of the world forever simply by refusing to give up her seat on a bus fifty years earlier. I only wish that I could do something half as memorable if I ever live that long.

This past February 4, Rosa Parks would have turned one hundred years old. And, because of that, several places all over the world held 100th birthday celebrations in memory of Rosa and her contributions. But, I'm sure that if Rosa were still alive today, she'd probably act all embarrassed by the honour. After all, she never did what she did for the fame, or the money, or the personal karma. She did it to make it easier for people of all races to enjoy life and live life, and not have to worry about who they were any longer.

Rosa Parks...I salute you.

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