Originally delivered as a Wednesday night lecture at Seventh and James Baptist Church in January of 2006:

Around six PM on Thursday evening, Dec. 1, 1955, headed home after finishing her work day as a seamstress at a downtown Montgomery department store, Rosa Parks stood in front of Court Square waiting for the Cleveland Avenue Bus.

She hurriedly boarded the bus and found an empty seat. A few moments later, she would refuse to surrender her seat to a white passenger. The police would come, they would arrest her, and a pivotal moment in modern American history would commence.

“Let me have those seats,” the bus driver had called back over his shoulder, seeing that a white passenger was standing.

Rosa was sitting next to an African American man and across the aisle sat two African American women. Although the driver was speaking to all four of them, not one of them moved.

The driver called back a second time: “Y’all make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.”

The man next to Rosa began to stir, and then stood and moved into the aisle.

Rosa looked across to see that the other women were also complying.

Rosa eased over to the just-vacated window-seat and, for lack of a better word, she “dug in.”

“I could not see how standing up was going to make it light for me,” she would later say.

”The more we gave in and complied, the worse they treated us.”

The driver saw that she was not moving and asked one more time if she was going to stand up.

“No,” she said.

“Well, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to have you arrested,” he said.

“You may do that,” Rosa Parks said.

By the time the police arrived a few minutes later, the back of the bus was quietly emptying out. When one of the policeman asked Mrs. Parks why she didn’t stand up, she asked him: “Why do you push us around?”

And he replied: “I do not know, but the law is the law, and you are under arrest.”


The Police charged Rosa Parks with violating chapter 6, section 11 of the Montgomery City Code.

In those days, Montgomery was often called the “Cradle of the Confederacy.”

Literally the first capital of the Confederate States of America, but, also, that phrase conveyed the truth that 1950s Montgomery was still very much a city in the tradition of the Deep South.

Racial Segregation on Mass Transit in Montgomery was a system similar to many other big city bus lines in the South. Montgomery buses had 36 seats; the first ten seats were reserved unconditionally for white passengers; African Americans were not allowed to sit in these seats under any circumstances.

As the vast majority of bus passengers were African Americans, it was quite common for the section behind the first ten seats to be full and the white section empty or near empty.

The other twenty-six seats were ostensibly reserved for African American passengers; however, the bus driver was empowered to move the line of segregation back as needed.

Upon his discretion, the bus driver might appropriate a row (or rows) in the “colored” section and reallocate the normally African-American row to a white-only row.

Since custom dictated that a white passenger would not sit in the same row as a black passenger, the bus driver would convert the entire row (even for only one white passenger).

Rosa Parks occupied a seat in the row right behind the ten seats reserved for whites only, and the driver demanded that all four black passengers (three of whom were female) to give up their seats for one white male passenger. So much for Southern chivalry.

A brief aside: During none of this, did Rosa Parks remember the white passenger commenting on what was transpiring in front of him; the white passenger did not indicate his sympathies as he watched this incident play out, evidently content to be only an observer to this drama.

Black Montgomery considered this flexible line of segregation especially humiliating. In fact, the mortification of “giving up” one’s seat in one’s “own section” was at the core of most of the protest and bitterness against the bus company.

So much so, initially, the ensuing Bus Boycott would merely request a more humane system of segregation, asking only for decent treatment rather than demanding complete integration.

However, “the Lord hardened the hearts” of the city administrators (as the writer of Exodus might say), and the white power structure refused to negotiate in good faith with the protesters. As a result, the African American protesters decided to go for broke: complete desegregation.

A few more nuts and bolts of segregation on the buses:
Within the Montgomery system, the bus driver had great discretion in all this. The City Code invested the Drivers with “police powers.”

The treatment on the buses varied greatly depending on who was driving. Many drivers were quite lax about the fluid line—choosing not to intervene, allowing the ebb and flow of pick-ups and drop-offs to naturally take care of standing white passengers.

On the other hand, some drivers were sticklers.

And some drivers were so adamant about the Jim-Crow regulations that they required black passengers to enter through the front door to pay and then exit the front door and walk around to the back door to enter the bus.

This too was humiliating as well as inconvenient. And there had been cases in which sadistic drivers would actually pull away from the stop without black passengers who had paid their fare already.

And the driver on the Cleveland Avenue Bus on December 1, 1955, James Blake, had a history with Rosa Parks. According to her account, back in 1943, twelve years earlier, Blake had insisted that Parks pay in the front of the bus, exit and then re-enter in the rear. Rosa had refused to submit to this humiliating demand, exiting and waiting for the next bus rather than enter through the back door.

Although Rosa did not know his name until the night of her arrest, she certainly remembered Blake and had assiduously avoided his buses for years.

Rosa would later remember that she had been distracted that evening and had not noticed who was driving until it was too late.

Rosa Parks was not the first black woman arrested for violating the segregation laws on the City Bus Lines in 1955.

Several women had been arrested on similar charges. The local chapter of the NAACP, led by Montgomery activist, E.D. Nixon, had been searching for a test case to challenge the bus segregation laws in federal court. Nixon had turned down several earlier opportunities to pursue a case, waiting for the appropriate complainant to come along. Understanding that the pressure on any NAACP litigant would be almost unbearably intense, Nixon rejected several applicants during 1955.

Many thought, finally, that they had a suitable person when authorities arrested and dragged from the bus fifteen-year-old high school student Claudette Colvin in the spring of 1955. However, the unmarried Colvin turned out to pregnant. NAACP litigants needed to be “squeaky clean,” E.D. Nixon would say; they needed to be articulate, even-tempered and morally upright. In 1950s America, a 15-year-old unwed mother did not fit that bill.

The search went on.

But then sometimes the stars align. Sometimes fate brings a woman of quiet strength and principle and impeccable integrity into the path of a bus driver with a bent toward bullying black passengers, and they meet on a crowded bus on a cool December night in the cradle of the Old Confederacy. And so it is with the complicated web of contingency that is history. Sometimes planets, persons, ideas and institutions collide and history is made.

Rosa boarded that bus. James Blake happened to be driving. The bus filled. And much of the rest is now a cherished and familiar chapter in the American story.


When E.D. Nixon found out that Rosa Parks had been arrested for violating the segregation laws, he could hardly believe it. “Look what segregation has put into my hands,” he reportedly said.

“I knew she would stand on her feet,” said E.D. Nixon. “She was honest, she was clean, she had integrity. She was smart. She was cool under fire, and she was not afraid.”

In other words she was the perfect plaintiff.

What was on Rosa’s mind that evening in December?

She knew that the NAACP was searching for a test case that would break segregation on Montgomery buses.

She knew that because she had been in on meetings with Claudette Colvin and E.D. Nixon and other activists in the community.

She knew because she was herself a very active member of the NAACP; she had served as secretary of the local branch of the NAACP for many years.

As E.D. Nixon would later gleefully tell reporters: “She was secretary for everything I had going—the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, NAACP, Alabama Voters League, all of those things....”

Nixon and Parks had a 12-year history of working together for Civil Rights in Montgomery.

Rosa Parks was registered to vote in Alabama—no small feat for an African American woman in the 1950s.

She had fought through hardship to attain a high school diploma (an achievement accomplished by less than 10 percent of the black population of Alabama at that time).

In April of 1955, the African American community across the South waited for the Supreme Court to explain how the Brown Decision would be applied. Rosa Parks had been proactive, attending a ten-day integrated workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. The retreat was a famous center for activism, or infamous in the eyes of the Southern segregationist, who would eventually label it the “Communist training school.”

The seminar she attended was entitled: “Racial Desegregation: Implementing the Supreme Court Decision.”

In addition, Parks often spent her lunch hour helping out at the law office of Fred Gray, a young African American attorney in Montgomery (for no pay).

Fred Gray went on to become a famous civil rights attorney. His more celebrated cases include Browder v. Gayle, the USSC case that would desegregate the Montgomery Bus Lines; Gomillion v. Lightfoot, an important reapportionment case; later he would spearhead the Pollard case which exposed the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.

Rosa Parks and Fred Gray had talked about the problem of segregation on the buses frequently, and she had spent her lunch hour with Fred Gray that very day.

Is any one suspicious? Was this a set-up? It is in my training and my DNA to be skeptical. Do we trust Rosa’s story that this moment was not premeditated?

I believe her. I have mulled this question over in my mind for many years, and for a number of reasons I am convinced that this was not some elaborate sting operation.

ON THE OTHER HAND, what is absolutely clear to me, is that Rosa Parks was not a mild mannered, apolitical, one-dimensional seamstress merely sitting on a bus minding her own business when destiny knocked on her door.

She was not merely a simple citizen with tired feet.

Rosa Parks did not bristle at much. Part of her charm as well as her natural genius for this kind of moral engagement was that she was so unflappable. But she blanched at the characterization of her as an old woman whose feet were so tired that she refused to move.

“I am old now,” she would say in later years, “but I was young then.” She was 42 at the time of her arrest.

Her story has become conflated with an almost contemporaneous quote from a less celebrated Montgomery figure known as Mother Pollard, who during the year-long bus boycott that followed the arrest, said famously: “My feet’s tired, but my soul is rested.”

That is a profoundly brilliant quote, but it is not Rosa’s. Rosa Parks never said her feet were tired.

“The only tired I was,” she would say often, “was tired of giving in.”

Rosa Parks had spent her whole life preparing for this exchange. To borrow a phrase from Stanislavski, AN ACTIVIST PREPARES. Parks was prepared for this momentous confrontation. She was prepared to stand and deliver, and, of course, she did just that.

She had rehearsed this role in an indirect way; her sense of what was right and what was evil was very clear to her at this point in her life.

Rosa Parks was actively and consciously confronting evil in her world.


By the time she was allowed her one phone call from the City Jail, word was spreading through Montgomery that Rosa Parks had been arrested.

Rosa called her house and spoke to her mother and then her husband, Raymond Parks. The first question her mother asked was: “did they beat you?”

For the record: Rosa reported that she suffered no physical abuse in the custody of the Montgomery Police Department.

E.D. Nixon and Clifford Durr, a white attorney, who had posted the bond and helped to arrange Rosa’s release, were just emerging from the jail with Rosa when Raymond Parks arrived.

Clifford Durr was an Alabama native, a Rhodes Scholar, a former New Dealer and a recently fallen Washington insider, purged for refusing to sign Truman’s loyalty oath during the Red Scare. His principles had nearly bankrupted his legal practice, and his tendency to champion African Americans won him nothing but harsh ostracism from white Montgomery.

His wife, Virginia, was also a native of Alabama who grew up (in her words) “believing in the myths of the South, attending Ku Klux Klan parades and loving Birth of a Nation.”

As a freshman at Wellesley she balked at dining with an African American student, but she was told that she would dine with her “negro” classmate or go home.

She didn’t go home; she stayed and “found intellectual stimulation in the classroom, and nourishment for the body, and ultimately the soul, in the socially, racially and ethnically integrated Claflin Hall dining room” (that last part is, literally, a direct quote from Wellesley PIO, but it is also, undoubtedly, true).

Virginia did end up leaving Wellesley prematurely—as a result of a family financial crisis; her father, a Presbyterian minister, lost his church for his lack of fealty to Biblical literalism. And Virginia Durr described her life from that point on as one of “genteel poverty.”

She went back to Alabama and subsequently married Clifford Durr (1926); they left Alabama for Washington in 1933.

And long before they moved back to Alabama in the mid-1950s, Virginia Durr had evolved into an activist on gender and racial equality—fighting the poll tax and other forms of discrimination.

She became a confidant to Eleanor Roosevelt and great friends with other racially progressive thinkers of her time and social circle.

Back in Montgomery, Virginia befriended and encouraged Rosa Parks; she listened sympathetically to Rosa’s accounts of local injustices and humiliations. It was Virginia Durr who had suggested and arranged the financing for Rosa to attend the Highlander Folk School in the spring of 1955.

Rosa was a regular at the integrated women’s prayer group that met at the Durr’s home.

It was the Durrs who would go to the City Jail and post bond for Rosa Parks.

It would be Clifford Durr who would direct much of the initial legal maneuvering in the court case that would dissolve racial segregation on the buses in Montgomery.

Virginia Durr would be the first person to meet Rosa as she exited the iron doors of the City Jail.

While Rosa remained unflinching through her incarceration, Virginia Durr greeted Rosa with tears in her eyes and visibly shaken, also anxious with fear that her friend might have faced harsh treatment in jail.

Thirty years after the fact, Rosa Parks remembered Virginia Durr’s embrace: “she put her arms around me, and hugged me and kissed me as if we were sisters.”

Back at Rosa’s home, Virginia Durr and Rosa’s mother served food to a small gathering of concerned friends who met to decide the next course of action.

E.D. Nixon convinced Rosa’s initially reluctant husband and mother that she was the right litigant to end the humiliation on Montgomery bus lines.

In addition to the legal strategy, E.D. Nixon began to envision a massive bus boycott to show support for Rosa Parks and put financial pressure on the bus company.

Attorney Fred Gray phoned Jo Ann Robinson near midnight that night.

Jo Ann Robinson was a professor of English at Alabama State College in Montgomery. She, like Rosa, was in her early forties; she had been at Alabama State since 1949, and she was president of the Women’s Political Council.

The Women’s Political Council was, arguably, the most formidable political entity in black Montgomery at that moment (albeit a fairly well-kept secret); at the very least, the Women’s Political Council was the organization most prepared for direct action.

For nearly a decade the Women’s Political Council had seethed over the abuses of the bus line. Robinson herself, during her first year in Montgomery, had suffered a humiliation at the hands of one of the bus drivers. And from 1952 to 1955, the Women’s Political Council had actively planned for a boycott at some appropriate moment.

That moment had arrived.

Staying up all night, Jo Ann Robinson cut stencils and ran-off 35,000 copies of a handbill announcing a one-day bus boycott in support of Rosa Parks. Making use of the organization that she had built for this specific purpose, Robinson directed the distribution of those announcements all over Montgomery.

Early Friday morning, E.D. Nixon started calling pastors. The first pastor he called was Ralph Abernathy (of the First Baptist Church). Abernathy responded favorably.

According to Nixon’s recollection, his third call was to Martin Luther King, of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. King hesitated. Nixon recalled King saying, “let me think about it awhile, and call me back.”

Nixon went on down the list and his nineteenth call that morning was the callback to King, who, by then, voiced his support for the boycott. Nixon responded saying: “I’m glad you agreed because I already set the meeting up at your church.”

The group of pastors met later that day at Dexter Avenue Baptist. They met again on Monday afternoon, and they formed the Montgomery Improvement Association and elected King president of the organization.

That Monday morning, Rosa Parks was convicted of violating the segregation law and fined, which was a necessary first step for a test case. And the buses rumbled through Montgomery that day empty of black passengers.

That night 5,000 people packed into the Holt Street Baptist Church and the overflow listened on loud speakers from the outside as King and others committed to extending the boycott indefinitely.

In the end, after more than a year of walking, carpooling, facing violence and legal battle, the Supreme Court would rule that segregated seating on the city bus line was unconstitutional.

An aside: This particular narrative actually began as a study of Martin Luther King and bearing the cross in the public arena. But somewhere along the way, I made a decision to emphasize the story of Rosa Parks. The more I looked at her life the more I became intrigued by how she bore the cross in the public arena

E.D. Nixon and Fred Gray and Clifford Durr. How easy it is to forget the contributions and sacrifices and years of preparation of these other less celebrated civil rights leaders in this all-important event.

Even more specifically, what about these three women who built this platform that King would stand on so brilliantly?

Think about this:

When the 26-year-old King agreed to lead this protest on December 5, 1955, Rosa Parks had been at this for at least twelve years. Virginia Durr has been working on her personal evolution and advocating for enfranchisement and civil rights for more than thirty years. Jo Ann Robinson has been building her organization for six years.

To paraphrase Jo Ann Robinson’s words: “This was a spontaneous act only for those persons who had not prepared for it for all their lives.”

And, again, none of this is designed to minimize the importance of King. Jo Ann Robinson, when asked about the role of King, called him “dynamite.” She proclaimed: “We could not have done what we did in Montgomery without King.” One needs only read the transcript of King’s speech at that Monday night meeting to understand the power of King. He was dynamite.

In fact, I think he is the indispensable person in all this, which is strong medicine for people of my kind (historians).

Having said that, we should consider the painstakingly laid groundwork (literally the life’s work of so many people), which was in place before Martin Luther King delivered that stirring oratory on December 5th.


What is the difference between Rosa Parks and the other three African American passengers who gave up their seats that Thursday night so long ago?

What is the difference between Rosa Parks and the white passenger who seemingly watched all this happen without saying a word?

What is the difference between Rosa Parks and James Blake, the bus driver?

Could it be that some of these people were just going through the motions of their lives, mindlessly doing what they had done the day before?

On the other hand, Rosa Parks and Jo Ann Robinson and Virginia Durr and E.D. Nixon were prepared to confront evil. Rosa Parks had made a conscious decision to confront evil.

I am reminded of an old church bulletin that excerpted a passage from Rosemary Radford Ruether’s To Change the World:

Commenting on our potential to confront evil (an excerpt from the excerpt), she said:

“The task of the follower of Christ is to move human society a little farther from the Kingdom of Satan, the kingdom of alienation and oppression, and closer to God’s kingdom, a society of peace, justice and mutuality.”

We are often exhorted in our churches to “be the presence of Christ in our world.”

What was Rosa Parks if not the presence of Christ in her world?

She truly loved Martin King. And when he wrote his book about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Stride Toward Freedom, she asked him to autograph her copy.

The inscription reads: “To Rosa Parks, whose creative witness was the great force that led to the modern stride toward freedom.”

That is a great way to sum up Rosa Parks’s quiet determination to bear the cross in the public square: her creative witness moved mountains.

And the lesson of Rosa Parks:

Preparation, a pure-heart, quiet strength, humility, providence---the right combination of these elements on the right night and, perhaps, just maybe, you can change the world.