Building a Civil Rights Movement — Rosa Parks and Freedom Rides

Panel from the Freedom Rides museum, operated by the Alabama Historical Commission in Montgomery, AL

To understand the South is to understand the juxtaposition of Civil War and Civil Rights. They occurred 100 years apart and we are another 50+ years beyond the Civil Rights Act. In the south, both elements of history are ongoing.

Montgomery, AL is ground zero for both these mega-histories. Both histories built themselves on real-time events and constructing advocacy narratives to make their issues accessible and lasting. One of the more endearing narratives is Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–56. The anniversary of her arrest is December 1. The other narrative is more violent. Freedom Rides occurred in 1961 to desegregate interstate bus transportation. Riding in public while black was severely constrained and legally monitored. People put their bodies on the line to change that.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

Rosa Parks did not appear out of the blue. She was one in a long line of advocates, NAACP members, and people who dared to challenge the segregated bus systems in the city. Her heroism in context is that she did this just three months after Emmett Till was murdered.

Ms. Parks was the standard bearer for the cause — to desegregate the city of Montgomery buses, allowing African-Americans to sit where they wanted to and not have to give up their seats to white riders upon demand. This transit rule was part of Jim Crow laws, designed to subjugate a group of people as second-class citizens and to legally enforce white supremacy. Rosa Parks was willing to get arrested, which did not require anything more from her than refusing to give up her seat in the white section of the bus upon when ordered to by the white bus driver. Her quiet demeanor made her approachable as a figure to revere. Her resolve to literally sit for her equality made her a heroic figure.

What is less know is how her act of civil disobedience turned into a year long bus boycott. Upon her arrest, a group of women known as the Women’s Political Council (founded 10 years earlier) sprang into action. They created small fliers that could be easily put into the palm of a person’s hand or quickly into a pocket, with details to mobilize a one day boycott and to come to a meeting that evening, on the day when Ms. Parks would have her court date. These organizers, led by Jo Ann Robinson who was on faculty at Alabama State University, lit a fire under a population that had been primed by previous arrests on the buses.

An overflow crowd of 5000 went to the Holt Street Baptist church where the community agreed to engage in a prolonged bus boycott. They were led by a 26 year old minister — Dr. Martin Luther King, who had been in Montgomery for only a year at the nearby Dexter Avenue Baptist church. A new organization was created — the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) that would negotiate with the city while NAACP legal challenges wound their way through the court. The determination and expectations in the black community were sky high. The boycott was successful even though it took over a year to resolve, because the MIA created a highly organized ride-share, people were willing to walk, and there was solidarity.

Here is what the boycotters faced — segregated bus stops, segregated and unequal bus seat options, and a hostile police department, bus company, and city elected officials. After about 5 weeks, city hall ended any negotiations because, as the Mayor stated, the MIA wanted to “destroy our social fabric “- meaning white supremacy. The irony is that the civil rights advocates were indeed disrupting the social fabric, the same fabric that a war was fought over and lost over a 100 years earlier. Despite the victory over that social fabric in the Civil War, Southern states had been given legal license to discriminate in social, civic, and political arenas by using Jim Crow laws. Now, each one had to be chipped away and Rosa Parks stepped forward to start this one. Brown vs. Board of Education had won a court order to desegregate schools only one year earlier.

A year later and millions of dollars poorer, the city agreed to desegregate the buses following a federal court order. The bus stops, however, remained segregated. Shoe leather for some equality was a small price to pay for many black Montgomery taxpayers. Rosa Parks and her husband paid a larger price. They could not find employment and moved to Detroit where she lived until her death in 2005.

Freedom Rides

In 1961 there was a choreographed effort to desegregate interstate transit. The Supreme Court had ruled affirmatively to desegregate the buses, but the bus companies in the south were not enforcing it or desegregating their stations. The Freedom Rides, organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) planned to ride through the south to demand implementation of the court ruling. It was a bloody summer.

The Greyhound bus station in Montgomery was segregated and unequal and the Riders got a violent response as they entered Alabama in Anniston, AL where their bus was firebombed. In Birmingham, the riders were attacked and beaten, ending the first Freedom Ride. A second Freedom Ride left Nashville and arrived in Montgomery where they were greeted by a violent mob. The mob was given a head start before the police would eventually arrive to “stop” the violence and arrest the riders who violated Alabama segregation laws. The riders were severely beaten by the Klan, initiating a federal showdown.

President Kennedy wanted these clashes to go away. He needed powerful southern Senators to support his policy agenda. His brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy and had US Marshals escort the Riders to Jackson, MS. Riders kept coming all summer and kept getting assaulted and arrested. They eventually succeeded in getting the government to use the Interstate Commerce Commission to implement desegregation across interstate travel, including the bus stops.

The Freedom Rides were six years after Rosa Parks was arrested. John Lewis joined the second wave of riders and paid dearly to finally prevail. Change came very slowly and very violently to the south, but it came.

Today, we have new challenges like voter suppression in Georgia, letting legal costs impede the restoration of voting rights of felons in Florida, and ongoing police violence around the country — we know the south is not the only violator of equality. Understanding the sacrifices of historical advocates is essential to understand the costs we must continue to pay to ensure civil rights.

I travel the country in my Airstream meeting people and enjoying life. I’m a writer. I was a Professor of Politics. Things change.