‘You may do that.’

On this date in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. The Montgomery bus segregation policy at that time dictated that the black and white sections were fluid based on need; whites were guaranteed at least the first four rows, but the boundary between the sections was wherever the dividing sign was at any given moment. If the bus was crowded with a lot of white passengers, the black section was pushed farther back toward the back of the bus. Sometimes the driver would eliminate the black section altogether; whenever this happened, the black passengers were forced to leave the bus and wait for another. Also, if there were white passengers in the front of the bus, black passengers weren’t allowed to walk past them to take their seats; they could board the front of the bus to pay their fare, but then had to get off and board by the back entrance, and it wasn’t uncommon for the bus to pull away before they had a chance to do so.

On this day, Parks, an African-American seamstress, sat down in the front row of the black section on her way home from work. All was well until the bus became more crowded with white passengers, and the driver moved the divider back; now Parks was seated in the white section. The driver demanded that she give up her seat to a white man, and she refused. She was tired from working all day, but she was also fed up; this had happened to her several times before. Years later, she recalled, “When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.” She refused to give up her seat. “When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ And he said, ‘Well, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to have to call the police and have you arrested.’ I said, ‘You may do that.'”

Parks’ arrest was the catalyst that the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association needed to organize a boycott of the city’s buses on December 5. A 26-year-old pastor named Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as the protest’s leader; on the first night of the boycott he came forward and said, “The great glory of the American democracy is the right to protest for right.” The boycott continued for over a year, and ultimately the United States Supreme Court ruled that the segregation policy was unconstitutional.


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