In the early evening on December 1st, 1955,
a woman leaving work sat on a bus in Montgomery.
In the early evening, a tired woman leaving work
sat down on a seat on a bus in Montgomery.
In the early evening, a tired black woman left work
and took a seat in the “colored” section of a bus in Montgomery.
In the early evening, after a long day of work,
a tired and weary black woman
took a seat in the “colored” section
behind the white section on a crowded bus in Montgomery.
In the early evening, on December 1st 1955,
after a long day of work making clothes for white people,
a tired weary black woman took her seat
in the “colored” section behind the white section
on a crowded, standing room only bus in Montgomery.
When all the white seats were taken,
this tired weary black woman was told to stand
so white people could sit down.
In the early evening, on December 1st, 1955,
after a long day of work making clothes for white people,
a tired weary black woman took her seat in the “colored” section
behind the white section on a crowded,
standing room only bus in Montgomery.
When all the white seats were taken,
she was told to stand to make room
so white people could sit down,
this tired weary black woman,
named Rosa Parks, said
Four days later, the Women’s Political Council initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott lasted 381 days and when it ended, the buses were no longer segregated. Rev. King’s home was fire bombed shortly after the boycott began which led to the decision to not just overturn Montgomery’s Bus policy but to seek the overturn of the Alabama segregation law. On December 20 1956, the US Supreme Court upheld the state’s ruling that this state law was unconstitutional and Rosa Parks then sat in the front seat of a bus.
This was not a random act that Rosa Parks took. Her finding courage to remain in her seat was not done on a spur of the moment in the vain hopes that her community would rally to her side. No, Rosa Parks was already active in her community.
The Women’s Political Council formed 9 years earlier precisely over this issue of black people being arrested because they sat down in empty seats that were not designated for black passengers. This event was 9 years in the making building coalitions across Montgomery. In March of 1954, The Women’s Political Council meets with Mayor Gayle about ending the pay-in- front-and-enter-in-the-rear policy of the bus company. With no response from his office, they write to warn him that there are 25 organizations preparing for a city-wide boycott of the city busses.
Jo Ann Robinson, president of the Women’s Political Council, in 1987 wrote about the Montgomery boycott and said: We organized the Women’s Council and within a month’s time we had over a hundred members. We organized a second chapter and a third, and soon we had more than 300 members. We had members in every elementary, junior high, and senior high school. We had them organized from federal and state and local jobs; wherever there were more than ten blacks employed, we had a member there. We were organized to the point that we knew that in a matter of hours we could corral the whole city.[i]
When she told her chapter heads that Rosa Parks had been arrested, she was told, “You have the plans, put them into operation.” She stayed up creating the stencils to print out 35K flyers calling for the boycott to begin on the 5th. There was no social media in those days to make an instant announcement—there were mimeographs.
Rosa Parks joined the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in the 1930s. She served as secretary of the chapter. She and her husband would have meetings in their house. These were dangerous times with numerous executions by the KKK. Young black men were falsely accused of raping white women and were given the death sentence. The chapter fought to assist these individuals. She is quoted as saying, “I remember 1949 as a very bad year. Things happened that people never heard about because they never were reported in the newspapers. At times I felt overwhelmed by the violence and hatred, but there was nothing to do but keep going.[ii]”
As a member, she attended the Highlander Center in the summer of 1955 to receive training. Rosa Parks once remarked to Studs Terkel that this training had “everything” to do with her ability to remain seated on December 1. The form of training was called Popular Education which is defined as the empowerment of adults through democratically structured cooperative study and action, directed toward achieving more just and peaceful societies, within a life sustaining global environment.[iii]
She was invited back to Highlander in March of 1956 to talk about the boycott her arrest sparked. She was asked by Myles Horton, co-founder of Highlander Center, this question.
What you did was a very little thing, you know, to touch off such a fire. Why did you do it; what moved you not to move? I’m interested in motivations – what makes people do things. What went on in your mind; Rosa?
Rosa Parks answered: Well, in the first place, I had been working all day on the job. I was quite tired after spending a full day working. I handle and work on clothing that white people wear. That didn’t come in my mind but this is what I wanted to know; when and how would we ever determine our rights as human beings? The section of the bus where I was sitting was what we call the colored section, especially in this neighborhood because the bus was filled more than two-thirds with Negro passengers and a number of them were standing. And just as soon as enough white passengers got on the bus to take what we consider their seats and then a few over, that meant that we would have to move back for them even though there was no room to move back.[iv]
How would we ever determine our rights as human beings? Parks in her autobiography would later state she wasn’t overly physically tired that fateful day, as she was more tired of giving in.
Donny Hathaway—wrote a song Tryin’ Times. The version I remember is the one by Roberta Flack–
Tryin’ times. That’s the world is talkin about. …
folks wouldn’t have to suffer
If there was more love for your brother
But these are tryin’ times …
A whole lot of things that’s wrong is going down,
I don’t understand it from my point of view
I remember somebody said do unto others
As you would have them do unto you
Then folks wouldn’t have to suffer
If there was more love
But these are tryin’ times,
Today, we are in need of courageous hearts again. We need those who are willing to sit down, when told to move to the back; willing to stand, when told to sit and obey; willing to organize, when told to wait and see.
These are tryin’ times. Different perhaps from the days when Rosa Parks decided to sit, but as I look around me, I smell those days rising again. It is intoxicating and like the field of poppies on the way to the Emerald City, it will lull us to sleep.
Unless we mobilize and organize now, we won’t be able to protect ourselves or our friends—who are immigrants, who are queer, who are black, who are Muslim, who are water protectors. The safe thing, the safe thing is to carry nosegays so we cannot smell the stench and blinders so we cannot see what is happening. And being white and silent means we could squeak by at the risk of losing our soul.
Do this and our silence makes us accomplices in the hateful cloud that is swirling around us. Already, Mosques have received threats of genocide coming their way. There have been threats in our schools, and in the market place against those who are marginalized.
Already, gays and trans folks have been warned that whatever rights they have achieved will be removed. The very first bill pre-filed for this next Alabama legislative session is a bathroom bill aimed against our Trans gender friends. With Trump in the White House, Alabama will feel emboldened to pass this and other hate filled bills against its citizens.
The mainstream media will fall in line. In fact, it is already happening. If you look at what mainstream media is reporting it is based on allegation driven news rather than evidence driven news[v]. So instead of making the lack of evidence the news, they are making the allegation the news, which when repeated over enough times is accepted as truth. We saw that when FBI chief Comey announced there were emails connected to Hillary found on Weiner’s lap top. It was an allegation that proved to be absolutely nothing and the media dug into the allegation and fueled that pile of sticks hoping there would smoke and fire. There was nothing. We have seen people repeat the allegation as fact and do not care there was no evidence for it. The new word of the year is Post-Truth. Or as one Trump surrogate stated on NPR, there are no facts, facts no longer exist[vi].
We have already seen Trump threaten the media. His tantrum regarding his meeting with the New York Times was both informative and a warning. Do not cross him as President. He will retaliate.
So we are living in a different kind of world where Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 are no longer fictional pieces but the new reality—where white supremacists can call protesters un-American, and allegations can be called truth and evidence is called falsehood. We cannot sit back and watch like this is a football game, where we cheer the witty comebacks of our favorite team and then gnash our teeth when they fumble. No, we need to find the courage to be engaged in this Brave New World.
We need to find the courage to be willing to risk our freedom like Rosa Parks did when she chose to remain seated. Her action had consequences. And in this new world order, our actions will have consequences but we must be willing to stand strong to the hate-mongering that is increasing around us.
But finding courage is not done in a vacuum. Rosa Parks did not do this without any forethought, she did this because she had been prepared for that moment. She was surrounded by a community that supported one another—that mobilized around her action. She educated herself on the issues to understand the power dynamics of what was happening. Others were educated as well. They worked together to prepare for the opportunity to resist. We need to be studying up on how to live under a demagogue. We need to be educated just as Rosa Parks was educated in popular education so when she resisted, she could do so with conviction and moral integrity. And inspire others to follow her lead.
Describing that first day of the boycott, Martin Luther King writes During the rush hours the sidewalks were crowded with laborers and domestic workers, many of them well past middle age, trudging patiently to their jobs and home again, sometimes as much as twelve miles. They knew why they walked, and the knowledge was evident in the way they carried themselves. And as I watched them I knew that there is nothing more majestic than the determined courage of individuals willing to suffer and sacrifice for their freedom and dignity[vii].
May it be so.
(c) Fred L Hammond 2016