Civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks has died at the age of 92. It was 50 years ago this December that she refused to relinquish her seat to a white man aboard a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her act of resistance led to a 13-month boycott of the Montgomery bus system that would spark the civil rights movement. We go back to 1956 to air a rare interview aired on KPFA with Parks. [includes rush transcript]
It was 50 years ago this December that Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat to a white man aboard a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was arrested and convicted of violating the state’s segregation laws.
Her act of resistance led to a 13-month boycott of the Montgomery bus system that would spark the civil rights movement. And it would inspire freedom struggles abroad including in South Africa. The bus boycott would also help transform a 26-year-old preacher named Martin Luther King Junior to national prominence. Rosa Parks’ arrest came just months after the lynching of Emmett Till.
At the time of her arrest, Parks was a 43-year-old seamstress and a seasoned civil rights activist. Since the 1940s she had been active in the NAACP, helped raise money to defend the Scottsboro rape case and attended trainings at the Highlander Folk School of Tennessee.
After the successful bus boycott Parks would continue to take part in the civil rights movement in this country. She marched in Selma, Alabama. She took part in the 1963 March on Washington. After moving to Detroit, she worked for Congressman John Conyers.
We go back to 1956 in the midst of the Montgomery Bus Boycott to one of the earliest preserved interviews with Rosa Parks.
- Rosa Parks, interviewed in April 1956 by Pacifica radio station KPFA. The interview comes from the “”:In Pacifica Radio Archives.
AMY GOODMAN: We go back to 1956, in the midst of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In April of that year, Rosa Parks spoke with Pacifica station, KPFA, about her decision just four months earlier not to move to the back of the bus. The interview comes from the Pacifica Radio Archives.
ROSA PARKS: I left work on my way home, December 1, 1955, about 6:00 in the afternoon. I boarded the bus downtown Montgomery on Court Square. As the bus proceeded out of town on the third stop, the white passengers had filled the front of the bus. When I got on the bus, the rear was filled with colored passengers, and they were beginning to stand. The seat I occupied was the first of the seats where the Negro passengers take as they — on this route. The driver noted that the front of the bus was filled with white passengers, and there would be two or three men standing. He looked back and asked that the seat where I had taken, along with three other persons: one in a seat with me and two across the aisle were seated. He demanded the seats that we were occupying. The other passengers there reluctantly gave up their seats. But I refused to do so.
I want to make very certain that it is understood that I had not taken a seat in the white section, as has been reported in many cases. An article came out in the newspaper on Friday morning about the Negro woman overlooked segregation. She was seated in the front seat, the white section of the bus and refused to take a seat in the rear of the bus. That was the first newspaper account. The seat where I occupied, we were in the custom of taking this seat on the way home, even though at times on this same bus route, we occupied the same seat with whites standing, if their space had been taken up, the seats had been taken up. I was very much surprised that the driver at this point demanded that I remove myself from the seat.
The driver said that if I refused to leave the seat, he would have to call the police. And I told him, “Just call the police.” He then called the officers of the law. They came and placed me under arrest, violation of the segregation law of the city and state of Alabama in transportation. I didn’t think I was violating any. I felt that I was not being treated right, and that I had a right to retain the seat that I had taken as a passenger on the bus. The time had just come when I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed, I suppose. They placed me under arrest. And I wasn’t afraid. I don’t know why I wasn’t, but I didn’t feel afraid. I had decided that I would have to know once and for all what rights I had as a human being and a citizen, even in Montgomery, Alabama.
And I was bond bailed out shortly after the arrest. The trial was held December 5 on the next Monday. And the protest began from that day, and it is still continuing. And so, the case was appealed. From the time of the arrest on Thursday night, and Friday and Saturday and Sunday, the word had gotten around over Montgomery of my arrest because of this incident. There were telephone calls from those who knew about it to others. The ministers were very much interested in it, and we had our meetings in the churches. And being the minority, we felt that nothing could be gained by violence or threats or belligerent attitude. We believed that more could be accomplished through the nonviolent passive resistance, and people just began to decide that they wouldn’t ride the bus on the day of my trial, which was on Monday, December 5.
And Monday morning, when the buses were out on the regular run, they remained empty. People were walking or getting rides in cars with people who would pick them up, as best they could. On Monday night, the mass meeting at the Hope Street Baptist Church had been called. And there were many thousand people there. They kept coming, and some people never did get in the church, there was so many.
I was not the only person who had been mistreated and humiliated. I have been refused entrance on the buses because I would not pay my fare at the front and go around to the rear door to enter. That was the custom if the bus was crowded up to the point where the white passengers would start occupying. I hadn’t thought that I would be the person to do this. It hadn’t occurred to me. Others had gone through the same experience, some even worse experience than mine, and they all felt that the time had come, that they should decide that we would have to stop supporting the bus company until we were given better service. And the first day of remaining off the bus had been so successful. It was organized, in that we wouldn’t ride the bus until our request had been granted.
AMY GOODMAN: Rosa Parks, from an April 1956 recording from the Pacifica Radio Archives, at PacificaRadioArchives.org. When we come back, we’ll hear from Congress member John Conyers. Rosa Parks worked with him for more than a decade.