An American Journey: Rosa Parks Remembered--Part I - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

02/07/06

An American Journey: Rosa Parks Remembered--Part I

In the last few days, we have seen many tributes to Coretta Scott King, but another civil rights leader passed just a few months ago. Her name is Rosa Parks. Almost 50 years after she made her stand against segregation in the South, Parks died at the age of 92.

The mother of the modern-day civil rights movement left a legacy of strength and courage.

To know Parks, you must first understand what was going on in the segregated South that led her to refuse to give up her seat. Many blacks and whites didn't get along. But that one bus ride was the beginning of change.

In the '50s, Montgomery, Alabama, looked like any other bustling city. Crowded streets and sidewalks, people going about their business. On the surface, it may have seemed typical. Life was cut and dry. Issues were black and white. But beneath that surface, as each day passed, life became more about color. It was a time of protests, violent assaults against blacks, lynchings, Klan rallies and cross burnings.

"When I was in high school, you know, there were these n------ that thought they were better than us and we'd get them with baseball bats," one former Klansman recalled. "We'd let them know we were mighty Whitey."

The city was deeply rooted in segregation. There were just as many people fighting for change as there were fighting to hold on to their old Southern traditions of hate based only on the color of someone's skin.

"It was like Montgomery as well as other cities were just like a bomb waiting to explode," recalled Montgomery native Helen Johnson, who now heads the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum in Savannah.

The tensions were mounting everywhere, even on the city buses. "When you have to pay at the front of the bus and then get off and go all the way around the bus to get on, it was humiliating," recalled Mayor Otis Johnson of Savannah.

"There were many people who were militant and stood up for freedom who were assaulted on the bus and beaten on the bus," said civil rights leader Dr. Gwen Patton. "Children were beaten."

Blacks of all ages had been physically abused and publicly humiliated. So much so, that by 1954, some blacks had warned the mayor of Montgomery and threatened to boycott the buses because of the way they were mistreated.

They were ready to call for the boycott a year later by 1955, but community leaders wanted to hold off for just the right case to make their point. So blacks continued to ride the bus. That year, Montgomery police arrested two teenage girls and an older woman for refusing to give up their seats to white passengers.

The tension between the races was growing and then, in Mississippi, two murders left the black community in an uproar. First whites killed a black minister because of his work to register black voters, and then two white men beat and shot to death 14-year-old Emmett Till. His crime: whistling at a white woman.

It was a combination of all of these incidents that led Rosa Parks to make a stand.

Former NAACP president ED Nixon, Sr., said, "The atmosphere was charged with so much hatred at that time. It was a mean and ugly time."

"The community as a whole was beginning to say, enough is enough," said Dr. Patton.

As Parks once put it, "I didn't feel like I was being treated as a human being."

Georgette Norman, director of the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery told us, "She was 42 years old, a seasoned woman, a member of the NAACP. She had a youth group."

"We would sit on her floor and she would talk about freedom," said Nixon. "Rosa Parks always had young people with her, training them to be somebody."

In 1955, Rosa Parks had stood on a corner near the hub for the public bus system many days after work to catch the bus home. To her left, the old slave market and the birthplace of the Montgomery civil rights movement. On December 1, 1955, she had no way of knowing that she would go down in history.

Parks got on the bus. She sat in the middle section because the black section was full. Just a couple of stops up the line, a white passenger got on the bus and demanded a seat. The bus driver asked Parks as well as three other blacks to move. Those three left, but Rosa Parks stayed right where she was.

The bus stopped and the driver continued to ask Parks to give up her seat. When she refused again, they called the police and she was arrested.

"When Rosa parks sat on the bus in 1955, that was the explosion," said Helen Johnson.

"She knew the consequences of what she was doing," said Georgette Norman. "She was willing to take that risk."

That risk meant jail and the possibility of being brutalized like so many others who had gone before her. Once in jail, Parks used her one phone call to contact NAACP president ED Nixon, Sr. Nixon called the jail to ask what she was charged with and what her bond was. Police wouldn't give a black man any information about Parks, so he called a friend, a white, well-known attorney named Clifford Durr. He and his wife went with Nixon to bail out Parks. Then they went straight to Parks' home.

"I said, 'You know we've taken this long enough,'" Nixon said. "I said, 'I am going to call the people together and organize a bus boycott.' We needed a test case, someone who had not been in trouble."

As we continue our look at the life of Rosa Parks, we'll show you what happened as a result of her arrest and Nixon's belief that hers was "the case we can use to break down segregation on the buses."

After Parks agreed, what we call the modern-day civil rights movement began. It took more than a year, but their struggle changed America.

That's tomorrow on THE News at 6.

Reported by: Dawn Baker, dbaker@wtoc.com

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