Deciphering the Meaning of Uncommon Courage
Much has been written and celebrated about Rosa Parks’ courage. Type both her name and that enviable attribute into Google and you’ll turn up more than 500,000 sources—everything from biographies (Courageous Citizen, A Life of Courage, and The Courage to Make a Difference, to name a few) to TV and film documentaries and historical and journalistic accounts. When the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor in 2013, on what would have been her 100th birthday (an event that took place at The Henry Ford as part of a National Day of Courage celebration), the design prominently featured “courage” alongside her portrait.
If we travel back in time to the December evening in 1955 when Rosa Parks boarded that city bus, we can begin to glimpse just why her courage was so extraordinary. We know from her account of the event that she made her defiant decision in an instant. It took tremendous courage. But it took even more courage for her to stand by her decision in the minutes, days, and years that followed.
To understand why, board bus No. 2857 assigned to the Cleveland Avenue route that December night. That very bus, painstakingly restored, is now parked inside Henry Ford Museum, and open to everyone. Enter through the front door and picture the scene from years ago: Most of the front 10 seats reserved for whites are occupied, as are the 10 seats at the rear marked with a sign for the “colored” section. See the overhead light shining down on the green-cushioned seat in the middle? Settle yourself here, just as Rosa Parks did.
We know from many accounts that Rosa Parks recognized the bus driver—he had humiliated her and other black riders over the years. Twelve years earlier, in fact, she’d even had a personal confrontation with him when he demanded that she exit the bus and board through the rear door (on that occasion, she had relented; when she stepped off, the driver promptly sped away before she could board in the rear). She also knew that this man, who threatened to have her arrested, carried a pistol in his holster. She was aware of recent racial atrocities, including the mistreatment of another black woman, Claudette Colvin, for not giving up her seat, and the death earlier that summer of 14-year-old Emmett Till from a lynching.
Let your imagination revisit the moments that unfolded as the flustered bus driver pointedly asked her, “Are you going to stand up?”
As one of her biographers, Douglas Brinkley, observed, Rosa Parks in that moment felt fearless, bold, and serene. She looked straight at the bus driver and said, “No.”
Three other black riders sat in the same row, one next to Rosa Parks, the other two across the aisle. When the bus driver again demanded that all four passengers give up their seats, the three other riders reluctantly got up. All the black riders were now at the back, all the whites at the front. Rosa Parks sat between them, a brave solitary figure marking the painful boundary between races. “As I sat there, I tried not to think about what might happen,” she wrote in her autobiography. “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 [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] 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.”
Illustration of bus where Rosa Parks sat, December 1, 1955
The diagram below shows where Rosa Parks sat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1, 1955. At the time, the first ten seats on Montgomery buses were reserved for white passengers only. Parks was sitting in the eleventh row. When the bus filled up the driver told Rosa Parks to surrender her seat to a white man, but she repeatedly refused. The bus driver called the police and Parks was placed under arrest.
Source | "Illustration of bus where Rosa Parks sat, December 1, 1955," Civil Case 1147 Browder, et al v. Gayle, et. al, from National Archives, http://www.archives.gov/press/press-releases/2006/nr06-08.html
Creator | U.S. District Court for the Northern (Montgomery) Division of the Middle District of Alabama
Item Type | Laws/Court Cases
Cite This document | U.S. District Court for the Northern (Montgomery) Division of the Middle District of Alabama, “Illustration of bus where Rosa Parks sat, December 1, 1955,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed March 10, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/867.