"Finally, we demanded, ‘Let my people go'": Remembering the bravery of Rosa Parks, on the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott

On Dec. 5, the first day of the boycott, the buses were nearly empty of black people. And so it was for 382 days

Published December 5, 2015 3:45PM (EST)

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

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

Going to Jail

After being escorted into city hall, Parks laughed to herself. “Who would have thought that little Rosa McCauley—whose friends teased her for being such a goody Two-shoes in her dainty white gloves—would ever become a convicted criminal, much less a subversive worthy of police apprehension, in the eyes of the state of Alabama?” Upon getting to the jail, she requested her phone call. Thirsty, she asked for water but was refused; the water was “for whites only.” “Can you imagine how it feels to want a drink of water and be in hand’s reach of water and not be permitted to drink?” Parks wrote later. Finally, a policeman brought her some water.

They asked her if she was drunk. She was not. She recalled not being “happy at all” or particularly frightened but found the arrest “very much annoying to me” as she thought of all the NAACP work she had to do. That evening she didn’t feel like history was being made but felt profoundly irritated by her arrest, which seemed a detour from the week’s more pressing political tasks.

She repeatedly asked for a phone call. Finally, she was allowed to telephone her family. Her mother answered and upon hearing that Rosa had been arrested, worriedly inquired, “Did they beat you?” Both her mother and Raymond were horrified to learn she was in jail, but Rosa assured her mother she had not been beaten. She then asked to talk to Raymond who promised to “‘be there in a few minutes.’ He didn’t have a car, so I knew it would be longer.” Home making dinner, Raymond was angry that no one had informed him of Rosa’s arrest. According to Rosa, “There was one man who was on the bus, he lived next door to where we lived, and he could have if he’d wanted to, gotten off the bus to let my husband know that I was arrested. My husband thinks kind of hard of him for not at least telling him.”

While in jail, Parks struck up a conversation with her cellmate, who had been in jail for nearly two months. The woman had picked up a hatchet against a boyfriend who had struck her—and, with no money for bail, was unable to let her family know where she was. Parks promised to try to get in touch with the woman’s family. Then abruptly the warden came to get her, but she hadn’t taken the paper where her cellmate had written down the phone numbers. The woman threw the small paper down the stairs as Parks left, and she surreptitiously picked it up. “The first thing I did the morning after I went to jail was to call the number the woman in the cell with me had written down on that crumpled piece of paper.” Parks reached the woman’s brother. A few days later, she saw the woman on the street looking much better.

Nixon had gone down to the jail with Clifford and Virginia Durr. The Durrs had no money, and Nixon put up the $100 bail. But he wanted the white couple to go with him to ensure the police actually released Parks after taking the bail money. Around 9:30 p.m., Parks walked out of jail to greet her friends. Virginia was struck by her appearance: “It was terrible to see her coming down through the bars, because . . . she was an exceedingly fine-looking woman and very neatly dressed and such a lady in every way—so genteel and so extremely well-mannered and quiet. It was just awful to see her being led down by a matron.” With tears in her eyes, Durr embraced her and was struck by how Mrs. Parks was “calm as she could be, not cheerful, but extremely calm.” As they were leaving, Raymond appeared with a bail bondsman, so Rosa rode home with him.

Nixon, the Durrs, and the Parkses convened in the Parkses’ Cleveland Courts apartment to talk over the next step. They drank coffee and discussed matters until about eleven that night. Clifford Durr thought he could get the charges dismissed if she wanted him to, because there had not been an open seat for Parks to move to. But Nixon saw this as the bigger opportunity they had been waiting for to launch an attack on bus segregation. “Mr. Durr’s right,” Nixon explained, “it’ll be a long and hard struggle. It’ll cost a lot of money. But we’ll get the NAACP behind it, I promise you that. It won’t cost you and Mr. Parks anything but time and misery. But I think it will be worth all the time and misery.” Nixon talked and talked, answering questions and explaining what he saw as the possibilities. Parks knew she never would ride the segregated bus again but had to consider making a public case and step into the line of attack.

Raymond did not initially agree. He “was pretty angry,” Rosa recalled. “He thought it would be as difficult to get people to support me as a test case as it had been to develop a test case out of Claudette Colvin’s experience.” They discussed and debated the question for a while. After an hour or two, the Durrs left, but Nixon stayed for a while longer. “In the end, Parks, and my mother supported the idea. They were against segregation and were willing to fight it.” With decades of political experience, Raymond Parks understood the physical and economic dangers this stand entailed and the difficulties he, his wife, and other activists had faced in building a unified mass movement. The community had not stood together for long in previous cases, particularly in Colvin’s, so Raymond worried. The economic and physical violence unleashed on protesting blacks, along with class divisions within the black community, had made a mass movement near impossible in the past. There would certainly be a price to pay for that resistance, and Raymond worried for the safety, physical and emotional, of his wife.

Virginia later highlighted Raymond’s reluctance, casting it differently than Rosa did. “He kept saying over and over again, ‘Rosa, the white folks will kill you. Rosa, the white folks will kill you.’ It was like a background chorus, to hear the poor man, who was white as he could be himself, for a black man, saying ‘Rosa, the white folks will kill you.’ I don’t remember her being reluctant.” Historians have latched on to Virginia’s version of Raymond’s reluctance. But there is a certain racialized and gendered cast to Virginia’s explanation— something emasculating in her description of Raymond’s fear and the ways she explicitly marked his light skin. It is unlikely that the Durrs had ever visited the Parks apartment socially before, and they did not know Raymond. So the unusualness of the circumstances likely affected how Virginia experienced and remembered the evening. E. D. Nixon provided no such description of Raymond.

Rosa contextualized Raymond’s response: “He was concerned about the way I was treated like any husband would be.” Fifty-two years old on that December evening, Raymond had a long history of activism. He had known people, as had Rosa, who were killed for their stands against racial injustice— and was even more soul weary than Rosa. He had experienced the ways people grew uncertain and movements crumbled under the immense pressure of white backlash. Virginia did not acknowledge the ways Raymond’s own activist experience came to bear that evening, let alone the responsibility he likely felt in trying to protect Rosa from the hardship that pursuing the case publicly would entail. For Rosa, faced with the possibility of retaliation against the entire family, it needed to be a communal decision. Talking to a coworker the next day, Raymond continued to worry that he and Rosa would be killed because of her arrest. Later that weekend, Rosa asked Virginia to speak at an NAACP meeting. She agreed to do so but “trembled at the thought of it being in the papers the next morning.” Even as a middle-class white woman, Durr feared public exposure of her beliefs. In interviews long after the boycott, Durr talked about how terrifying this period was. In 1954, she and Clifford had been red-baited for their civil rights beliefs and their connections to the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), and she had been called before Senator James Eastland’s Internal Security subcommittee and “expos[ed] . . . as a nigger-loving Communist.” She refused to answer questions—making national headlines as she stood silent before Eastland, occasionally powdering her nose. Despite their important contributions behind the scenes, the Durrs, in fact, often avoided situations where they would be publicly identified for their civil rights work. When Alabama State professor Lawrence Reddick decided to write a book on the boycott in 1956 and wanted to include description of the Durrs’ role, Virginia Durr said no. She explained her decision to a friend, “[Letting ourselves] be written up as having played a part, however it may seem to History, simply means that our tenuous hold here is lost for good. . . . I hated to have to tell him that History cannot feed your children or pay their school bills.” And yet, Virginia was unable to extrapolate her own fears about economic and physical retaliation to Raymond and rendered his fears for Rosa and his family’s safety unmanly.

Nixon knew Rosa Parks “wasn’t afraid” and that once she committed to things, she did not waver: “If Mrs. Parks says yes, hell could freeze but she wouldn’t change.” After talking with her mother and Raymond, who both came around to her taking this stand, Parks agreed. Later that evening, she called Fred Gray and asked him to provide her legal representation. Gray recalled that from that moment, “my days of having little to do in my fledgling law practice were over.”

Boycott: A Community Responds

“God provided me with the strength I needed at the precise time when conditions were ripe for change,” Parks observed. This was not some lucky happenstance. Rosa Parks and her colleagues had labored for years to seed the ground for a movement to grow in Montgomery, and those efforts had made the conditions ripe for a movement. In Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King observed that Parks had “been tracked down by the Zeitgeist.”

She wasn’t “planted” there by the NAACP, or any other organization; she was planted there by her personal sense of dignity and self-respect. She was anchored to that seat by the accumulated indignities of days gone and the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn.

Parks’s arrest proved the last straw for many in Montgomery—the “rightness” of the moment created by the people of Montgomery in the years previous to Parks’s bus stand and over the next 382 days of the boycott.

As Parks herself would note, “Many people cannot relate to the feelings of frustration that we, as black people, felt in the 1950s. . . . But because we went along with it then did not mean that we would let it go on forever. . . It was a long time coming, but finally, as a group, we demanded, ‘Let my people go.’” Her arrest would provide the impetus. Because she “had been active in the NAACP ever since she was grown,” Horton explained, Parks was “a perfect case . . . somebody whom everybody had confidence in, in Montgomery. Some person who people respected to provide the basis on which you could build a movement.”

* * *

Preaching the Word

On Sunday, King evoked the “awful silence of God,” calling on his congregation to join the one-day boycott to challenge “the iron feet of oppression.” Other black ministers across the city followed suit. Not only did the ministers’ participation in the boycott provide an important mechanism for disseminating news of the protest in a space free of white control, it also provided some protection from charges of red-baiting.

One white minister also joined the call. On Friday, Parks spoke with Reverend Graetz, whose church, Trinity Lutheran, sat next door to the Cleveland Court projects. Robert Graetz had assumed the pastorship of the black Trinity Lutheran Church in 1955, and he and his wife had been viewed as racial oddities since moving to Montgomery from Ohio. The Graetzes sat in the “black” section at the movies. Local whites shunned them in stores. Graetz had heard of the arrest and plans for the boycott but as a white man (even though he ministered to a black congregation) was having trouble getting much information on the events. So he called one of his closest black acquaintances, Rosa Parks, who used his church for her Youth Council meetings. “I just heard that someone was arrested on one of the buses Thursday,” he said to her.

“That’s right, Pastor Graetz,” Parks replied.

“And that we’re supposed to boycott the buses on Monday to protest.”

“That’s right, Pastor Graetz.”

“Do you know anything about it?”

“Yes, Pastor Graetz.”

“Do you know who was arrested?”

“Yes, Pastor Graetz,”

“Well, who was it?”

There was a moment of silence.

Then in a quiet voice she replied, “It was me, Pastor Graetz.”

That Sunday, like the Reverends King and Abernathy, Reverend Graetz stood in his pulpit and gave a Christian interpretation of Parks’s arrest and the impending one-day boycott. He told his black congregation of his plans to participate in the boycott and to make his own car available to help shuttle people around town, and urged his congregation to do the same.

On Saturday, Parks hosted the already-planned NAACP Youth Council workshop at Alabama State College. Only five young people came. Having devoted a great deal of effort to set up the workshop, she was extremely discouraged by the turnout and increasingly anxious about what Monday would bring.


That Monday, people woke up early. Martin and Coretta King were dressed by 5:30 a.m. Martin believed if 60 percent of the black community stayed off the bus, the protest would be a success. A bus rolled by nearly empty of black passengers; another bus passed empty. They were elated. Nearly every black person in Montgomery had stayed off the bus. It was a magisterial sight: the sidewalks and streets of Montgomery filled with black men, women, and children walking, waiting, offering rides to people they knew or had never met. “It was really surprising,” Georgia Gilmore, a cook and midwife who in the days to come would emerge as a key organizer and fund raiser, recalled. “We thought well maybe some of the people would continue to ride the bus. But after all, they had been mistreated and been mistreated in so many different ways until I guess they were tired and they just decided that they just wouldn’t ride.”

“Gratifying” and “unbelievable” were the words Parks used to describe the sight that Monday morning—the way people “were willing to make the sacrifice to let it be known that they would be free from this oppression.” The reaction far surpassed anything she had ever seen. For Parks, this movement had been long in coming, but that December morning it had arrived. “As I look back on those days, it’s just like a dream. The only thing that bothered me was that we waited so long to make this protest.”

In a 1966 interview, Parks asserted that her most vivid memory from the entire year of the boycott was waking up December 5, looking out, and seeing the buses “almost completely empty.” Robinson explained the “hopeful, even prayerful” feeling that greeted the morning. Most people had not slept well, afraid the one-day action would fail and “the proud black leaders of the boycott would be the laughingstock of the town.” But this was not to be. “A quality of hope and joy” marked the day, Durr wrote a friend. Montgomery Advertiser reporter Azbell described the mood as “solemn” and noted no black people spoke to white people.

Parks dressed carefully for her court hearing: “a straight, long-sleeved black dress with a white collar and cuffs, a small black velvet hat with pearls across the top, and a charcoal-gray coat.” She carried a black purse, and wore white gloves. Mrs. Parks well understood the importance of image to this protest, and she chose her outfit to reflect a dignified and proud citizenship, an in-your-face challenge to the degradation that segregation had long proffered. Rosa and Raymond Parks and E. D. Nixon assembled at Fred Gray’s law office at 8 a.m. to figure out the last-minute details and then walked the block and a half over to the courthouse. “I was not especially nervous,” Parks recalled.

“I knew what I had to do.”

Hundreds of people stood outside court and packed the corridors of the courthouse by 8:30 that morning to demonstrate their support. A number of the members of Parks’s Youth Council skipped school to attend. Upon hearing the news, Mary Frances, one of Parks’s Youth Council members, observed, “They’ve messed with the wrong one now,” turning it into a small chant. The crowd cheered when she entered the building and called out their willingness to help with whatever she needed. For Nixon, the turnout was astonishing. In the twenty-five years he had been organizing, “I never saw a black man in court unless he was being tried, or some of his close friends or relatives.” Up and down the street, “from sidewalk to sidewalk,” it was clear that a new spirit had been brought forth in Montgomery. “The morning of December 5, 1955,” Nixon proclaimed, “the black man was reborn.” Parks felt an enormous sense of relief. The assembled multitude buoyed her spirits: “Whatever my individual desires were to be free. I was not alone. There were many others who felt the same way.”

Judge John Scott heard Parks’s case in City Recorder’s Court. The courtroom itself was segregated, with blacks on one side and whites on the other. Parks, Gray, and the city prosecutor stood. The trial lasted less than thirty minutes. “It was a very emotional experience,” Gray recalled, “because, not only was I representing Mrs. Parks as her attorney, but we were friends. In addition, this was my first case with a large audience. . . . Was I nervous? Maybe a little. Was I determined? You bet.”

At the hearing, the prosecutor moved to change the warrant, charging Parks with violating state law rather than city ordinance (since Montgomery ordinances did not allow people to be asked to give up their seat if another was not available). Gray objected, but the judge allowed it. Parks did not testify. Blake did, as did two white witnesses, one of whom said there was a seat in the back that Parks refused to take, directly contradicting Blake’s testimony that all the seats had been full. Parks was found guilty and fined fourteen dollars.

Gray entered her appeal.

Gray and Parks stayed behind to do some paperwork, but Nixon joined the crowd on the street. “If you don’t bring her out in a few minutes,” people yelled, “we’re coming in after her.” Delighted by the boldness, Nixon thought to himself, “It was the first time I had seen so much courage among our people!” Still, he worried the police were looking for any excuse to react. After Parks came out of the building, he addressed the crowd, “’See this man out here with this sawed-off shotgun? Don’t give him a chance to use it. . . . I’m gonna ask you all to quietly move from around this police station now; Mrs. Parks has been convicted and we have appealed it, and I’ve put her in the car . . . As you move, don’t even throw a cigarette butt, or don’t spit on the sidewalk or nothing.” Given the surge of militancy, seasoned organizers like Nixon wanted to protect and nurture it.

Activists in Montgomery’s black community had long worried that it would be impossible to unify the community around a particular action. It was “almost unbelievable,” Parks noted, how successful the one-day protest had been. Parks saw one of her Youth Council members and asked why she had not attended the Saturday workshop. The young woman told her that she had been passing out leaflets about Monday’s protest. Though Parks did not frame it this way, these young people had learned her lessons well: “They were wise enough to see . . . it was more important to stand on the street corners and pass these papers out to everyone who passed then to sit in a meeting and listen to someone speak.”

After her trial, Parks didn’t go to work but returned to Fred Gray’s law office. She wanted to be helpful. He asked her to answer the phone, something he occasionally had her do, and then left for a meeting with King, Abernathy, and Nixon. “The people were calling to talk to me but I never told them who I was,” Parks admitted decades later. “They didn’t know my voice so I just took the messages.”

This moment reveals one of the paradoxes of Mrs. Parks’s own choices about her role in the movement. Parks was a shy person and a political organizer who believed in collective action over individual celebrity. These traits combined to produce the mixture of action and reticence that would characterize her public role in the days and years to come. Over the course of the boycott, she would participate in dozens of programs when she saw it as a way to further the protest. (And over the next half century, this would grow to include thousands of appearances.) But time and again, she actively avoided the spotlight and sometimes obscured the role she was actually playing. So Parks did not sit around in Gray’s office or go home to rest or go back to work that Monday afternoon. She wanted to be useful, so she answered the phone since many people were calling with questions about the protest. But she did not tell the callers who she was. That erasure would have costs, though; Rosa Parks’s own life exemplified many of the currents of African American protest in the twentieth century, but she would come to be known for a “simple act” on a single day. She would stay back, anonymously answering phones, confined to a gender-specific role, while decisions were being made on the leadership of the protest.

The beginning of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) hails from that meeting Gray went to the first afternoon of the boycott, which neither Parks nor Robinson attended. Indeed, while WPC members, churchwomen, and domestic workers would make up the bulk of the boycott’s organizational infrastructure, the leadership (most of whom had their own cars and did not ride the bus) was overwhelmingly male. When some of the clergy at the meeting sought to conceal their identities, Nixon responded angrily that they lacked the courage of Mrs. Parks and were acting like “scared boys.” “Where are the men?” he challenged. Nixon took up a highly gendered language chastising the ministers and telling them they needed to catch up to the community. “We need to turn history around and stop hiding behind these women who do all the work for us. I say we stand out there in the open and hold our heads high.” He then threatened to take the microphone and tell their congregations that these clergy were “too cowardly to stand up on their feet and be counted.” King, entering late, agreed, willing to step forward publicly. King was elected to lead the new organization—his name put forward by Rufus Lewis, in part because King was his pastor and in part because he disliked Nixon and feared the militant porter would become the president of the new organization. Others supported the young minister in part because when the protest failed, they would not be blamed. The only woman elected was Erma Dungee as financial secretary. The group drew up three demands: first-come, first-served seating (where blacks would sit starting from the back and whites from the front but no one would be asked to move); respectful, courteous service; and the hiring of black bus drivers.

When asked a decade later whom she would have picked to be the leader, Parks explained that she did not know: “I don’t know if I would have had any particular choice. I had met [King] . . . a number of times and heard him speak. And as far as I was concerned, he was well suited for this particular role because he was, as you said, young, eloquent and, as far as I know, well liked in the community. . . . But I don’t think I would have wanted to have been the one to have selected any one person at the time.” Implicit in Parks’s comment (“any one person”) and her reluctance to affirm that she too would have picked King, or conversely Nixon, is her experience within an organizing tradition, exemplified by Highlander, that was wary of picking a single leader. Exemplified by her mentors Ella Baker and Septima Clark, the political community Parks came out of encouraged broad-based structures of decision making and leadership as a way to sustain a mass movement.

Excerpted from "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks" by Jeanne Theoharis (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from 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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Books Civil Rights Civil Rights Movement Jr. Martin Luther King Montgomery Bus Boycott Race Rosa Parks