Sixty-seven years ago today, December 1, in the city of Montgomery, United States, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to white people. Parks was an activist with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP], and her attitude was a milestone for anti-racist and anti-segregation demands in the country.
To celebrate her act of insubordination that was recorded in the memories of Black peoples across the globe, we share today an excerpt from the book My Story, first published in 1992. In the chapter “You’re Under Arrest,” Rosa Parks recounts the day when she was taken to jail, how she was treated, and what political strategies to denounce racist segregation were being discussed at the time.
“You’re Under Arrest”
I don’t think any segregation law angered black people in Montgomery more than bus segregation. And that had been so since the laws about segregation on public transportation had been passed. That was back in 1900, and black people had boycotted Montgomery streetcars until the City Council changed its ordinance so that nobody would be forced to give up a seat unless there was another seat to move to. But over the years practices had changed, although the law had not. When I was put off the bus back in 1943, the bus driver was really acting against the law. In 1945, two years after that incident, the State of Alabama passed a law requiring that all bus companies under its jurisdiction enforce segregation. But that law did not spell out what bus drivers were supposed to do in a case like mine.
Here it was, half a century after the first segregation law, and there were 50,000 African Americans in Montgomery. More of us rode the buses than Caucasians did, because more whites could afford cars. It was very humiliating having to suffer the indignity of riding segregated buses twice a day, five days a week, to go downtown and work for white people.
Jo Ann Robinson was an English professor at Alabama State College. Back in 1946 she had helped found the Women’s Political Council. Over the years she’d had her share of run-ins with bus drivers, but at first she couldn’t get the other women in the Council to get indignant. She was from Cleveland, Ohio, and most of them were natives of Montgomery. When she complained about the rudeness of the bus drivers, they said that was a fact of life in Montgomery. She had often brought protests to the bus company on behalf of the Women’s Political Council. Finally she managed to get the company to agree that the buses would stop at every corner in black neighborhoods, just as they did in the white neighborhoods. But this was a very small victory.
What galled her, and many more of us, was that blacks were over sixty-six percent of the riders. It was unfair to segregate us. But neither the bus company nor the mayor nor the city commissioners would listen. I remember having discussions about how a boycott of the city buses would really hurt the bus company in its pocketbook. But I also remember asking a few people if they would be willing to stay off the buses to make things better for us, and them saying that they had too far to go to work. So it didn’t seem as if there would be much support for a boycott. The Montgomery NAACP was beginning to think about filing suit against the city of Montgomery over bus segregation. But they had to have the right plaintiff and a strong case. The best plaintiff would be a woman, because a woman would get more sympathy than a man. And the woman would have to be above reproach, have a good reputation, and have done nothing wrong but refuse to give up her seat.
Back in the spring of 1955 a teenage girl named Claudette Colvin and an elderly woman refused to give up their seats in the middle section of a bus to white people. When the driver went to get the police, the elderly woman got off the bus, but Claudette refused to leave, saying she had already paid her dime and had no reason to move. When the police came, they dragged her from the bus and arrested her. (…)
After Claudette’s arrest, a group of activists took a petition to the bus company officials and city officials. The petition asked for more courteous treatment and for no visible signs of segregation. They didn’t ask for the end of the segregation, just for an understanding that whites would start sitting at the front of the bus and blacks would start sitting at the back, and wherever they met would be the dividing line. I think that petition also asked that black bus drivers be hired. The city officials and the bus company took months to answer that petition, and when they did, every request in it was turned down.
I knew they needed a plaintiff who was beyond reproach, because I was in on the discussions about the possible court cases. But that is not why I refused to give up my bus seat to a white man on Thursday, December 1, 1955. I did not intend to get arrested. If I had been paying attention, I wouldn’t even have gotten on that bus.
I was very busy at that particular time. (…) When I got off from work that evening of December 1, I went to Court Square as usual to catch the Cleveland Avenue bus home. I didn’t look to see who was driving when I got on, and by the time I recognized him, I had already paid my fare. It was the same driver who had put me off the bus back in 1943, twelve years earlier. He was still tall and heavy, with red, rough-looking skin. And he was still mean-looking. I didn’t know if he had been on that route before—they switched the drivers around sometimes. I do know that most of the time if I saw him on a bus, I wouldn’t get on it.
I saw a vacant seat in the middle section of the bus and took it. I didn’t even question why there was a vacant seat even though there were quite a few people standing in the back. If I had thought about it at all, I would probably have figured maybe someone saw me get on and did not take the seat but left it vacant for me. There was a man sitting next to the window and two women across the aisle.
The next stop was the Empire Theater, and some whites got on. They filled up the white seats, and one man was left standing. The driver looked back and noticed the man standing. Then he looked back at us. He said, “Let me have those front seats,” because they were the front seats of the black section. Didn’t anybody move. We just sat right where we were, the four of us. Then he spoke a second time: “Y’all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.”
The man in the window seat next to me stood up, and I moved to let him pass by me, and then I looked across the aisle and saw that the two women were also standing. I moved over to the window seat. I could not see how standing up was going to “make it light” for me. The more we gave in and complied, the worse they treated us. (…)
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. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.
The driver of the bus saw me still sitting there, and he asked was I going to stand up. I said, “No.” He said, “Well, I’m going to have you arrested.” Then I said, “You may do that.” These were the only words we said to each other. I didn’t even know his name, which was James Blake, until we were in court together. He got out of the bus and stayed outside for a few minutes, waiting for the police.
As I sat there, I tried not to think about what might happen. I knew that anything was possible. I could be manhandled or beaten. I could be arrested. People have asked me if it occurred to me then that I could be the test case the NAACP had been looking for. I did not think about that at all. In fact if I had let myself think too deeply about what might happen to me, I might have gotten off the bus. But I chose to remain.
Meanwhile there were people getting off the bus and asking for transfers, so that began to loosen up the crowd, especially in the back of the bus. Not every-one got off, but everybody was very quiet. What conversation there was, was in low tones; no one was talking out loud. It would have been quite interesting to have seen the whole bus empty out. (…)
Eventually two policemen came. They got on the bus, and one of them asked me why I didn’t stand up. I asked him, “Why do you all push us around?” He said to me, and I quote him exactly, “I don’t know, but the law is the law and you’re under arrest.” One policeman picked up my purse, and the second one picked up my shopping bag and escorted me to the squad car. In the squad car they returned my personal belongings to me. They did not put their hands on me or force me into the car. After I was seated in the car, they went back to the driver and asked him if he wanted to swear out a warrant. He answered that he would finish his route and then come straight back to swear out the warrant. I was only in custody, not legally arrested, until the warrant was signed.
As they were driving me to the city desk, at City Hall, near Court Street, one of them asked me again, “Why didn’t you stand up when the driver spoke to you?” I did not answer. I remained silent all the way to City Hall.
As we entered the building, I asked if I could have a drink of water, because my throat was real dry. There was a fountain, and I was standing right next to it. One of the policemen said yes, but by the time I bent down to drink, another policeman said, “No, you can’t drink no water. You have to wait until you get to the jail.” (…) I asked if I could make a telephone call and they said, “No.” Since that was my first arrest, I didn’t know if that was more discrimination because I was black or if it was standard practice. But it seemed to me to be more discrimination. Then they escorted me back to the squad car, and we went to the city jail on North Ripley Street.
I wasn’t frightened at the jail. I was more resigned than anything else. I don’t recall being real angry, not enough to have an argument. I was just prepared to accept whatever I had to face. I asked again if I could make a telephone call. I was ignored.
She [the matron] took me up a flight of stairs (the cells were on the second level), through a door covered with iron mesh, and along a dimly lighted corridor. She placed me in an empty dark cell and slammed the door closed. She walked a few steps away, but then she turned around and came back. She said, “There are two girls around the other side, and if you want to go over there with them instead of being in a cell by yourself, I will take you over there.” I told her that it didn’t matter, but she said, “Let’s go around there, and then you won’t have to be in a cell alone.” It was her way of being nice. It didn’t make me feel any better. (…) There were two black women in the cell that the matron took me to, as she had said. One of them spoke to me and the other didn’t. One just acted as if I wasn’t there. The one who spoke to me asked me what had happened to me. I told her that I was arrested on the bus.
She said, “Some of those bus drivers sure are mean. You married?” I said, “Yes,” and she said, “Your husband ain’t going to let you stay in here.”
She wanted to know if there was anything she could do, and I said, “If you have a cup, I could drink a little water.” She had a dark metal mug hanging above the toilet, and she caught a little water from the tap, and I took two swallows of that. She then started telling me about her problems. I became interested in her story and wondered how I could assist her.
She said she had been there for fifty-five or fifty-seven days and that she was a widow, her husband had died. She’d been keeping company with another man, and he’d got angry with her and struck her. She took a hatchet and went after him, and he had her arrested.
She said she had two brothers, but she had not been able to get in touch with them. Meanwhile, after she’d been in jail for a certain length of time, the man had kind of healed up and he wanted to get her out of jail, but only providing that she would keep on going with him. But she didn’t want any more to do with him. So she was in jail without any way of getting in touch with anybody who could get her out.
She had a pencil but no paper, and I didn’t have any either, because they had taken my purse. By the time she got through telling me about what was going on, the matron returned and told me to come out of the cell. I did not know where I was going until we reached the telephone booth. She gave me a card and told me to write down who I was calling and the telephone number. She placed a dime in the slot, dialed the number, and stayed close by to hear what I was saying.
I called home. My husband and mother were both there. She answered the telephone. I said, “I’m in jail. See if Parks will come down here and get me out.”
She wanted to know, “Did they beat you?”
I said, “No, I wasn’t beaten, but I am in jail.”
She handed him the telephone, and I said, “Parks, will you come get me out of jail?”
He said, “I’ll be there in a few minutes.” He didn’t have a car, so I knew it would be longer. But while we were still on the phone, a friend came by in his car. He’d heard about my being in jail and had driven to our place on Cleveland Court to see if he could help. He said he’d drive Parks to the jail.
The matron then took me back to the cell.
As Parks’ friend had indicated, the word was already out about my arrest. Mr. Nixon had been notified by his wife, who was told by a neighbor, Bertha Butler, who had seen me escorted off the bus. Mr. Nixon called the jail to find out what the charge was, but they wouldn’t tell him. Then he had tried to reach Fred Gray, one of the two black lawyers in Montgomery, but he wasn’t home. So finally Mr. Nixon called Clifford Durr, the white lawyer who was Mrs. Virginia Durr’s husband. Mr. Durr called the jail and found out that I’d been arrested under the segregation laws. He also found out what the bail was.
When I got back to the cell, the woman had found some little crumpled-up paper, and she wrote both of her brothers’ names and telephone numbers on it. She said to call them early in the morning because they went to work around six a.m. I told her I would.
Just then the matron came to let me know that I was being released, and the woman hadn’t given me the piece of paper. They were rushing me out, and she was right behind me. She knew she would not get through the iron-mesh door at the end of the stairs, so she threw it down the stairs and it landed right in front of me. I picked it up and put it in my pocket.
Mrs. Durr was the first person I saw as I came through the iron mesh door with matrons on either side of me. There were tears in her eyes, and she seemed shaken, probably wondering what they had done to me. As soon as they released me, she put her arms around me, and hugged and kissed me as if we were sisters. (…) We left without very much conversation, but it was an emotional moment. I didn’t realize how much being in jail had upset me until I got out.
As we were going down the stairs, Parks and his friends were driving up, so I got in the car with them, and Mr. Nixon followed us home.
By the time I got home, it was about nine-thirty or ten at night. My mother was glad to have me home and wanted to know what she could do to make me comfortable. I told her I was hungry (for some reason I had missed lunch that day), and she prepared some food for me. (…) Everyone was angry about what had happened to me and talking about how it should never happen again. I knew that I would never, never ride another segregated bus, even if I had to walk to work. But it still had not occurred to me that mine could be a test case against the segregated buses.
Introduction by Helena Zelic
Edited by Helena ZelicIntroduction translated from Portuguese by Aline Scátola