Rosa Parks: "I had been pushed as far as I could stand"

On her 100th birthday, a new book argues the civil rights icon's rebellion goes beyond that one famous refusal

Published February 3, 2013 4:00PM (EST)

    (AP/Gene Herrick)
(AP/Gene Herrick)

Excerpted from "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks"

“Whites would accuse you of causing trouble when all you were doing was acting like a normal human being instead of cringing,” Rosa Parks explained. “You didn’t have to wait for a lynching.” Such were the assumptions of black deference that pervaded mid-20th century Montgomery, Ala. The bus with its visible arbitrariness and expected servility stood as one of the most visceral experiences of segregation. “You died a little each time you found yourself face to face with this kind of discrimination,” she noted.

Blacks constituted the majority of bus riders, paid the same fare, yet received inferior and disrespectful service — often right in front of and in direct contrast to white riders. “I had so much trouble with so many bus drivers,” Parks recalled. That black people comprised the majority of riders made for even more galling situations on the bus. Some routes had very few white passengers yet the first 10 seats on every bus were always reserved for whites. Thus, on many bus routes, black riders would literally stand next to empty seats. Those blacks able to avoid the bus did so, and those who had the means drove cars. Black maids and nurses, however, were allowed to sit in the white section with their young or sick white charges, further underscoring the ways that bus segregation marked status and the convenience of white needs, and did not simply regulate proximity.

Because Montgomery saw itself as a more cosmopolitan city than some of its Southern neighbors, signs or screens separating the black and white sections were no longer used. It was a “matter of understanding [of] what seats we may use and may not use,” Parks explained, with the power and discretion, particularly over the middle seats, “left up to the driver.” “The bus driver could move colored people anywhere he wanted on the bus,” Nixon reiterated, “because he was within his rights under a city ordinance.” The arbitrariness of segregation, the power and place it granted white people, was perhaps nowhere more evident that on the bus.

Some bus drivers were kinder, remembered Rosalyn Oliver King and Doris Crenshaw, letting black passengers sit in the white seats while they drove through the black parts of town. But the minute they crossed into a white neighborhood, most drivers would tell the black passengers to get up. “There were times when I’d be on the bus” Parks recalled, “and if what they called ‘White section” or “White Reserved seats” were occupied and any white people were standing, they would just stand.” But kindness did not undermine the force and legal basis of segregation. The majority of drivers made black passengers stand over open seats and forced them to pay and re-board through the back door so they would not even walk next to white passengers. Jo Ann Robinson recalled the demeaning terms often used in addressing African American women — “Black nigger,” “black bitches,” “heifers,” and “whores.” Dr. King elaborated: “‘Go on round the back door, N—r.’ ‘Give up that seat, boy.’ ‘Get back, you ugly black apes. …I’m gonna show you niggers that we got laws in Alabama.’ ‘N—r, next time you stand up over those white people I’m gonna throw you over to the law.’ ‘I hat N—rs. …Y’all black cows and apes, git back.’” For Rosa Parks the education young children received in mores of segregation was the “most painful,” as she hated to see children take an empty seat only to have their parents snatch them up and hurry them to the back before they got in trouble.

December 1, 1955

“[I]t was a strange feeling because … even before the incident of my arrest, I could leave home feeling that anything could happen at any time.” On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks finished work at Montgomery Fair. That Thursday had been a busy day for the 42-year-old Parks. During her coffee break, she had talked with Alabama State College president H. Council Trenholm to finalize plans for her NAACP workshop on campus that weekend. As usual, she had lunch at her friend Fred Gray’s office -- the young lawyer was only the second black attorney in the city -- and then spent the afternoon hemming and pressing pants. Her shoulder was bothering her. She was looking forward to a relaxing evening at home and had some NAACP work to do.

She left work. Deciding to wait for a less crowded bus, Parks picked up a few things at Lee’s Cut-Rate Drug. She contemplated buying a heating pad but decided they were too expensive. In short, "this day was just like any other day.”

The downtown Court Square near Montgomery Fair was decorated with Christmas lights. A banner over one store read “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men.” This festive atmosphere masked the fearsome race relations that had defined the place for its 150 years of existence. This was the Cradle of the Confederacy. Slaves had been auctioned from that square. Across the street was the Exchange Hotel, which had served as the first headquarters of the Confederacy. Rosa Parks well understood that history of Southern white power and black resistance.

Around 5:30, Mrs. Parks distractedly boarded the yellow-and-olive bus and paid her 10 cents. Had she been paying attention, she probably “wouldn’t even have gotten on that bus” because the driver James Fred Blake had given her trouble before. Back in 1943, Parks had paid her fare, and this very same bus driver insisted that Parks had to exit and re-board through the back door. She felt this practice constituted a humiliation too great to bear. When Parks did not move, Blake grabbed her sleeve, attempting to push her off the bus. She purposefully dropped her purse and sat down in a seat in the whites-only section to pick it up. Blake seemed poised to hit her. “I will get off … You better not hit me,” she told him and exited the bus and did not re-board. For the next 12 years, she avoided Blake’s bus.

As with other segregated situations like drinking fountains and elevators, Parks avoided the bus and walked when she could. But not owning a car, and given her job and political commitments, sometimes she had no choice. Parks refused to pay her money in front and then go around to the back to board. Some drivers told her not to ride if she “was too important … to go to the back and get on.” According to Parks, some motormen had even come to recognize her because of this. “[I]t seemed to annoy and sometimes anger the bus drivers.” One particular driver, if he saw Parks alone, would shut the bus door very quickly and drive on. Overall, Parks had long attempted to maintain her dignity on the bus and there were “almost countless times when things happened … But I always indicated that even if I was forced to comply with these rules that it was very distasteful to me.” In an interview in 1956 with white liberal Aubrey Williams, Parks said that she had never before that evening been directly asked to give up her seat for a white person.

Comfortably setting her parcels down, Rosa took a seat next to a black man in the middle section of the bus. The bus was not crowded, with many seats still open in the front. As she admired the sights and sounds of Christmas, her mind turned to her husband and “how we were going to have a good time this Christmas.” Raymond was making dinner, and in 15 short minutes she would be home. There were two black women sitting across the aisle from her. They were all seated in a row toward the middle of the bus. As she would clarify repeatedly in the years to come, she was not sitting in the white section but in the middle section of the bus. The middle was liminal space; whereas the other sections had inflexible racial assignments, the middle allowed space for paying black customers to sit which could be trumped on the discretion of the driver by the needs of a white rider. At the third stop, the white section of the bus filled up. The bus had 36 seats, 14 whites occupied the white front section; 22 black people were sitting in the back seats. A white man proceeded to stand behind the driver.

When Blake noticed, he called back, “let me have those front seats” — meaning the first row of seats in the middle section where Mrs. Parks and three others were sitting. By the terms of Alabama segregation, because there were no seats remaining in the white section, all four passengers would have to get up so one white man could sit down. In Montgomery, technically, black passengers were not supposed to be asked to give up their seat if there was not another one available — but on the “whim” of the driver could be asked to stand for another passenger. When the driver ordered them to give up their seats, no one moved. Getting agitated, the bus driver said, “You all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.”

Parks reflected to herself on how giving up her seat “wasn’t making it light on ourselves as a people.” She thought about her grandfather keeping his gun to protect their family. She thought about Emmett Till. And she decided to stand fast. “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day … No the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

Blake told the four black passengers to move. The white passenger never said anything to Parks. When asked by an interviewer in 1967 if the man seemed embarrassed, Parks replied, “I don’t remember paying him any attention.” What she was about to do was much bigger than him.

Her seatmate and the other two women got up “reluctantly,” according to Parks, but she refused. She moved her legs so the man sitting in the window seat could get out and then slid into the seat next to the window. She continued to sit, firm in her decision but unsure what would next ensue.

The tall, blond 43-year-old driver got up and walked back to where she was seated. City code gave the “powers of the police officer” to bus drivers. Blake, like all of Montgomery’s bus drivers at that time, was white and carried a gun. When the boycott began, there were no black drivers on the city’s lines. Born nine months before Rosa Parks in the town of Seman, Alabama, Blake had left school after the ninth grade and been hired by the bus company in 1942. Drafted into the Army in 1944–45 and seeing active duty as a truck driver in the European theater, he returned to his job in late 1945 and had been driving the city’s buses ever since.

Parks had not planned the protest but “had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed.” She “couldn’t take it anymore … It is such a long and lonely feeling. The line between reason and madness grows thinner (due to the) horrible restrictiveness of Jim Crow laws.” And so she decided to withdraw her participation in a system of degradation. Parks felt she was being asked to consent to her own humiliation: “I felt that, if I did stand up, it meant that I approved of the way I was being treated, and I did not approve.” “Tired of giving in,” Mrs. Parks had reached her stopping point.

“Besides,” noted Jo Ann Robinson, “she was a woman, and the person waiting was a man.” The fact that she was being asked to stand for a man was significant. In a 1964 Esquire article she noted, “It didn’t seem logical, particularly for a woman to give way to a man.” This carried another cost — that of marking herself as not a lady since etiquette dictated a man would never take a seat from a woman; indeed, he should offer his seat to her.

There were no other seats on the bus so, according to city code, Parks was entitled to keep hers. But, as she told an interviewer in February, she had “made my mind that I was not going to move even if there were seats in back.” A.W. West, a prominent black woman in the community concurred, “When I asked her what happened, she said that she did not move. There were no other seats; however, she stated that if there had been, she had made up her mind never to move again.”

Blake wanted the seat, “I had police powers — any driver for the city did.” The bus was crowded and the tension heightened as Blake walked back to her. Refusing to assume a deferential position, Parks looked him straight in the eye.

Blake asked, “Are you going to stand up?”

Parks replied, “No.” She then told him she was not going to move “because I got on first and paid the same fare, and I didn’t think it was right for me to have to stand so someone else who got on later could sit down.”

“Well I’m going to have you arrested.”

“You may do that,” Parks replied.

Given her NAACP organizing experience, Parks was exceedingly cognizant of the dangers a black woman faced in getting arrested. She knew that Claudette Colvin had been manhandled by police and others had been beaten or shot for their resistance. In her words, “I was well aware of what could happen or what might happen to me other than being arrested if they still wished to physically abuse me.” Stories circulated through the black community, according to Doris Crenshaw, of “women being pulled off the bus and raped and not arrested.” Parks knew what could happen “but I was resigned to the fact that I had to express my unwillingness to be humiliated in this manner.”

Parks thought about the possibility of resisting but decided not to put up any physical fight, even if Blake or the police got rough with her. “I didn’t have any way of fighting back. I didn’t have any type of weapon. And I would have been too physically weak to try to have done anything to protect myself against any of these policemen, you know, if they had decided to use violence in handling me.” Years earlier, in the bus incident with her mother, Parks had imagined using her hands if her mother was manhandled. But here she did not. Parks was a seasoned activist at this point and understood the value in not resisting arrest — since the police had actually charged Colvin not just with a violation of the segregation laws but also with resisting arrest and assault. Still, faced with the possibility that she might be assaulted, in an interview in 1956, she recalled that she “wasn’t frightened at all.” Rather, she was somewhat distracted, thinking about all she had to do for the upcoming youth council workshop and the December NAACP elections.

Parks looked to her faith in this moment: “God has always given me the strength to say what is right.” Parks also attributed her courage to the history of black freedom fighters who had come before her. “I had the strength of God and my ancestors with me.” Black women had a long history of bus, train, and streetcar protest, exposing and undermining the “irrationality of segregation” according to historian Blair Kelley.

Parks framed her decision as a morally important one, and described it in terms similar to Gandhi’s ideas of the moral obligations of civil disobedience: “If I did not resist being mistreated, [then] I would spend the rest of my life being mistreated.” Parks highlighted the “artificial, legal” nature of segregation; to move from her seat legitimated the logic of it. Parks refused.

Parks’ frustration came also from the disjuncture between how she was expected to act at work, tailoring clothes in the men’s department at Montgomery Fair, and how she was treated in public life. “You spend your whole lifetime in your occupation, actually making life clever, easy and convenient for white people. But when you have to get transportation home, you are denied an equal accommodation. Our existence was for the white man’s comfort and well-being; we had to accept being deprived of just being human.” Having worked the day altering and pressing white men’s suits, Parks again was being asked to lower herself so a white person could be convenienced. She refused. As she had learned from her mother and grandparents, part of being respectable was not consenting to the disrespect of her person.

Blake left the bus to call the supervisor from the pay phone on the corner, “I was under orders to call them first.” His supervisor told Blake to put the woman off the bus. “Did you warn her Jim?” I said “I warned her.” And he said … ”Well, then, Jim you do it. You got to exercise your power and put her off, hear? And that’s just what I did.” Meanwhile, the tension on the bus grew. Most on the bus, black and white, feared what might happen. They did not want trouble, and many wished she would just stand up. Parks heard grumblings of conversation though she could not make out what they were saying. Some black people exited the bus. “I supposed they didn’t want to be inconvenienced while I was being arrested,” she surmised.

Police officers F.B. Day and D.W. Mixon boarded the bus. The police were “the front line of the white segregationist army,” according to white Montgomery minister Robert Graetz. While the Klan had for many decades been the central force to keep black people in line, “that kind of illegal activities was no longer tolerated, at least officially. Nowadays, the task of controlling Negroes was entrusted to the legally constituted constabulary.” Montgomery whites saw themselves as sophisticated. They did not have to resort to common vigilantism — at least publicly — and had entrusted the police to maintain a severely segregated and unequal city. The law was up to the task.

Blake explained to the officers that he had asked for the seats and the “other three stood, but that one wouldn’t.” This phrasing angered Parks. “He didn’t say three what, men or women, didn’t refer to anything, just, ‘that one,’ pointing to me, ‘wouldn’t stand up.’” Blake addressed nothing further to Parks after he had called in the officers.

The first officer addressed Parks and asked her why she did not stand up when instructed to. Parks coolly asked back, “Why do you all push us around?”

He replied, “I don’t know, but the law is the law and you’re under arrest.”

Parks thought to herself, “Let us look at Jim Crow for the criminal he is and what he had done.”

As she exited the bus, one officer picked up her purse and the other her shopping bag. The police officers talked to the driver “secretly, however I did hear one say, ‘NAACP,’ and “Are you sure you want to press charges.” The driver said that he did and that he would come down after his next trip. The policemen were reluctant, but they had no choice.” Blake wanted to swear out a warrant and after he finished his run would come by to finish the paperwork.

In contrast to other troubles Parks had previously had on the bus, Blake chose to have her arrested, rather than simply evicting her from the bus. In an interview on February 5, 1956, Parks put the agency on Blake, rather than the officers, who were willing to just put her off the bus. That decision, according to E.D. Nixon, “was the worst thing ever happened to him.” There is no indication from this interview or others that the officers knew Parks but they seemed to fear the NAACP and what it might do. At 6:06 p.m., the officers signed warrant 14256 charging Rosa Parks with violating chapter 6 section 100 of Montgomery city code.

In an interview years later, Blake explained, "I wasn't trying to do anything to that Parks woman except do my job. She was in violation of the city codes, so what was I supposed to do? That damn bus was full and she wouldn't move back. I had my orders." But in fact, she wasn’t in violation of city code and his orders from the supervisor had just been to have Parks removed from the bus — not specifically to have her arrested. That extra step, Blake’s vociferous defense of segregation and desire to see Parks punished, also proved historic. As Parks observed, the first time she had trouble with Blake, he had evicted her from his bus but hadn’t called the police. But this evening “he just felt like he wanted to throw his weight around or exercise his power beyond just enforcing segregation law.” This was indeed how segregation worked more broadly; endowing a broad cross-section of white people with authority that could be wielded and not wielded on their discretion.

David Levering Lewis in his 1970 biography of King claims that Blake recognized Rosa Parks’ caliber of person and that this prompted his decision to call the police, rather than physical removal from the bus.

Had Rosa Parks been less primly composed, had her diction betrayed the mangled speech of the ordinary black passenger, the outcome of Thursday, December 1, 1955, could have been different … [Blake] was not generally given to violence, and to use expletives before the amazed and slightly embarrassed white passengers (several of whom were female) struck him as unprofessional … Blake’s decision to summon the police appeared to offer the most expedient solution to this extraordinary dilemma.

Parks made the decision to remain in her seat with her own political will and long history of bus resistance. She did not make it because of E.D. Nixon or Myles Horton, though they had certainly been instrumental in her political development. She was not a Freedom Rider boarding the bus to engage in an act of intentional desegregation. If that had been the case, if Parks had been acting on behalf of the NAACP, her former classmate Mary Fair Burks explained, “she would have done so openly and demanded a group action on the part of the organization, since duplicity is not part of her nature.”

Still, Rosa Parks was a seasoned political organizer. She had been galled by bus segregation for years. So that evening as she waited the many minutes for the police to board the bus, she thought about what Mr. Nixon would say and perhaps even how they might use this in their organizing. In the hundreds of interviews she gave around her bus stand, however, Parks rarely acknowledged thinking of Nixon during her arrest and what they might do. Because segregationists were so quick to call her an ‘NAACP plant,’ she likely felt that any admission risked giving their slander credence. There is no evidence of any sort of plan, no indication till the moment presented itself of Parks knowing that she would be able to summon the courage to refuse to move from her seat. It is likely that she, like many black Montgomerians, particularly after Colvin’s arrest, had thought and talked about what she would do if she were asked to give up her seat to a white person. But thinking or even talking about it and actually being able to act in the moment are vastly different.

But she was well-aware of the political situation and the resources she would call on. “I told myself I wouldn’t put up no fuss against them arresting me … As soon as they arrested me, I knew, I’d call Mr. Nixon and let him know what had happened. Then we’d see.” In another interview, Parks also mentions thinking about Nixon in that moment. “[I]t was the only way I knew to let him [Nixon] and [all the world] know that I wanted to be a respectable and respected citizen in the community.” And in a 1967 interview, she explained, “I had felt for a long time, that if I was ever told to get up so a white person could sit, that I would refuse to do so."

Parks made an active choice in that instance. As poet Nikki Giovanni framed it, “she saw the opportunity and she took it.” In the midst of the fear, humiliation, and inconvenience of being asked to give up your seat on a crowded bus, with the real possibility of violence for refusing, to see an opening is testament to Parks’ vision that December evening. In a moment designed to frighten and degrade, she was able to see herself as an agent and claim a space of choice. "It's only a few people that you can find that can get a glimpse of …what is going to happen,” Rev. Johns extolled, “And Rosa Parks was one of those rare people who could catch a vision."

But that agency was also lonely. In the much-told story of Parks’ bus stand, it becomes easy to miss the ways that active choice required her to sit alone. “One of the worst days of my life,” she explained, the decision to remain in her seat required a deep will. There were other people she knew on the bus, but none came to her defense. “I felt very much alone.” She fantasized about what it would have been like if the whole bus had emptied or if the other three had stayed where they were “because if they’d had to arrest four of us instead of one, then that would have given me a little support.” Parks had not expected that others would follow her or come to her defense on the bus — “I knew the attitude of people. It was pretty rough to go against the system to the extent that you might not …” In another interview, however, she admits to wishing they had and seems frustrated, though unwilling to admit it, “I possibly would have felt better if they had taken the same stand. But since they didn’t, I understood it very well. I didn’t bear any grudge against them.” In a later interview, she put it more starkly, “When I was arrested, no other person stood and said, “If you put this woman in jail, I am going too …” In numerous interviews and in her own writings over the years, Parks came back repeatedly to how lonely her arrest was, describing her stand is less than triumphal terms: “At times, I felt resigned to give what I could to protest against the way I was being treated.”

Parks believed in the responsibility of the individual stand against injustice. In a speech in Los Angeles a few months after her bus stand, Parks stressed the solitary nature of the protest, which she saw following from the preceding years of relatively lonely activism. “My convictions (against segregation) meant much to me — if I had to hold on to my convictions alone, I would … Over the years, I have been rebelling against second-class citizenship. It didn’t begin when I was arrested.” Parks had taken a number of personal stands against segregation before her bus stand — refusing to use the “colored” bathroom, refusing to pay her money and then re-board the bus from the back door, drinking from the “white” fountain, insisting on taking her youth group to the Freedom Train. Here again, she drew a personal line with no way of knowing that a whole community would soon follow. As she described it in 1978, “There were times when it would have been easy to fall apart or to go in the opposite direction, but somehow I felt that if I took on more step, someone would come along to join me.” Getting arrested was considered a mark of shame, but Parks resisted this thinking.

In the years subsequent to her arrest, and particularly in the past few decades, Parks’ decision to remain sitting has repeatedly been called a "small act." But there was nothing small about her action. Renowned black feminist Pauli Murray, in a tribute to Mrs. Parks in 1965, observed: “Here was an individual virtually alone, challenging the very citadel of racial bigotry, the brutality of which has horrified the world over the past few years.” Murray had also been arrested on a Petersburg, Virginia, bus in 1940 for refusing to give up her seat.

“Any one of us who has ever been arrested on a Southern bus for refusing to move back,” Murray highlighted, “knows how terrifying this experience can be, particularly if it happened before the days of organized protest … The fear of a lifetime always close to the surface of consciousness in those of us who have lived under the yoke of Southern racism is intensified by the sudden commotion and the charged atmosphere in the cramped space of the bus interior. As one who has known this fear, I suspect Mrs. Parks also felt it, but summoning all of her strength, she disregarded it and held her position.”

Parks also contextualized her decision within her role as a political organizer: “An opportunity was being given to me to do what I had asked of others.” Seeing herself as part of a fledgling movement, she felt she had a responsibility to act on behalf of this larger community. She had been pushing the young people in her Youth Council to step up and contest segregation and had grown disappointed by the ways adults in the community “had failed our young people.” NAACP Field Secretary Mildred Roxborough recalled Parks “wonderment” — “thinking I had a role, I became an example of what I preaching.” On the bus that December evening, she saw herself at a crossroads and chose to do what she had asked of others.

In part, Parks acted because she had grown disheartened by pushing other people to take action who were reluctant to do so. Frustrated by the Colvin case, by meetings and affidavits that went nowhere, Mrs. Parks’ discouragement transformed into confrontation that December evening. Indeed, her decision to act arose as much from frustration with the lack of change than a belief that her particular action would alter anything. “I simply did it because I thought nobody else would do anything,” she would later explain. But she also chose a more direct defiance, refusing to get up rather than just exiting the bus (as she had done previously).

Rosa Parks’ protest has often been reduced to the unwitting action of a quiet seamstress with aching feet. That explanation “started that after I moved to Detroit. I never heard it before I left the South,” Parks observed to a reporter in 1980. Parks critiqued these popular mis-characterizations:

I didn’t tell anyone my feet were hurting. It was just popular, I suppose because they wanted to give some excuse other than the fact that I didn’t want to be pushed around … And I had been working for a long time — a number of years in fact — to be treated as a human being with dignity not only for myself, but all those who were being mistreated.

Her quietness has been misread. She may have seemed “schoolmarmish but there was a storm behind it,” observed activist-journalist Herb Boyd. “You could hear thunder in her quietness.” That evening, as she waited on that bus, there was thunder in her silence. Years later, Parks clarified what motivated her stand, reframing the discussion away from its narrow idea of a seat next to a white person to actual goal of equal treatment and full human dignity. “I have never been what you would call just an integrationist. I know I’ve been called that … [but] Integrating that bus wouldn’t mean more equality. Even when there was segregation, there was plenty of integration in the South, but it was for the benefit and convenience of the white person, not us. So it is not just integration.” Her aim was to “discontinue all forms of oppression against all those who are weak and oppressed.”

Time and again, Parks explained her protest as an intrinsic part of the political work she already was doing, vehemently denying that her protest stemmed simply from physical fatigue. In an August 1956 speech, she elaborated, “It is my opinion, it has always been and I’m sure it will always be that we must abolish such evil practices.” In 1958, she told a full church in Norfolk, “it wasn’t a decision I made that day but the people found out that I had made it long before.” And she pointedly made clear that her actions stemmed directly from political commitments she had carried all her life. “As far back as I can remember I knew there was something wrong with our way of life when people could be mistreated because of the color of their skin,” she told 1,000 people gathered at an NAACP meeting in Baltimore in October 1956. From a later interview with Howell Raines, she explained how her bus resistance “was just a regular thing with me and not just that day.” Parks was not unusually tired that day. The source of her decision was a resolve that had long gestated inside her. Simply put, Parks was tired of injustice — “tired of giving in” — and in that tiredness found determination.

In his first mass movement speech, Dr. King echoed this theme of metaphysical tiredness. “There comes a time,” King told the thousands gathered at Holt Street Church on the first night of the boycott, “when people get tired.” The crowd roared. King spoke of being “tired of going through the long night of captivity. And now we are reaching out for the daybreak of freedom and justice and equality.” In many ways, Parks and King tapped into a collective psychic saturation. As one Montgomery domestic explained, “You know, child, you can just take so much and soon you git full. Dat’s what happen here.”

What Parks found that Thursday evening, what King articulated the following Monday, what black people in Montgomery realized was the accumulation of tiredness at injustice brought courage and that courage brought a resolve that could withstand whatever laid ahead. King in "Stride Toward Freedom" wrote, “no one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over … Mrs. Parks’s refusal to move back was her intrepid affirmation that she had had enough.”

Parks’ personal act was nonetheless connected to a history of community struggle and the lessons she had taken from Highlander. Her experience at Highlander the past summer had raised her expectations as well as given her new visions. Durr wrote the Hortons crediting Highlander for the role it played in Parks’ action. After Parks got back from Highlander “she was so happy and felt so liberated” Durr wrote, then as time when on “the discrimination got worse and worse to bear AFTER having, for the first time in her life, been free of it at Highlander. I am sure that had a lot to do with her daring to risk arrest as she is naturally a very quiet and retiring person although she has a fierce sense of pride.” Septima Clark expressed a similar sentiment in a letter in 1956. “Had you seen Rosa Parks (the Montgomery sparkplug) when she came to Highlander you would understand just how much guts she got while being there.” Esau Jenkins stressed how Highlanders philosophy of transformative personal action had operated that December evening. Highlander taught “if you have to sit for your rights, sit for it … If that’s what necessary to do at that time to bring the focus, the public, on the evil that is happening to the people,’ and she said, ‘Well, I’m not going to get up this day.’” Highlander had furthered Park’s sense of outrage and widened her sense of possibility.

“It was inside you the whole time,” Studs Terkel would sum up in an interview with Rosa Parks in 1973. Frustrated by years of political work that had produced little change and no unified movement, Parks’ stand was a deeply political, principled act by a woman who well knew the danger of bus resistance. In her bravery, other people would find theirs as well.

Excerpted from "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks" by Jeanne Theoharis. Copyright 2013. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

By Jeanne Theoharis

Jeanne Theoharis is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and the author or coauthor of seven books and numerous articles on the civil rights and Black Power movements, the politics of race and education, social welfare, and civil rights in post-9/11 America. Her widely acclaimed biography "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks" won a 2014 NAACP Image Award and the Letitia Woods Brown Award from the Association of Black Women Historians, and appeared on the New York Times Best Sellers list.

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