IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The thread that unraveled segregation

Other black women had refused to give up their seats on the Montgomery buses. How did it happen that Rosa Parks was the one who leapt into the bruised air of the Deep South? And America?
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Rosa Parks wanted badly to attend the wedding. After all, she had done the alterations on Lucy Durr Hackney's wedding dress, which had been handed down to her from a cousin. Over the years, she'd done a lot of sewing for Lucy's parents, who were her best white friends in Montgomery, Ala.

"She was a beautiful seamstress," Hackney recalled yesterday, in a voice that made it seem the seamstress was something of an artist.

Then the officials at St. John's Episcopal Church told Lucy that if Rosa Parks was going to attend the wedding, she would have to wear a uniform -- "like a servant," Hackney says. "Or sit in the balcony."

Parks had risen to national fame during the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, two years before Lucy's wedding.

And now her options were the balcony, or a uniform.

The seamstress politely declined to attend.

"If I would have been braver," Hackney says, "perhaps I would not have gotten married at that church. But the wedding was too far down the line at that point. It was very sad."

The seamstress had come out of a world in which she was told where to sit, where to eat, what stores she could and could not go into. She had come out of a world in which she had to give up her seat to any white person if he didn't have a place to sit on the bus.

Then it changed. The so-called uppity and brazen blacks of Montgomery launched their renowned boycott and won the right -- with the backing of the U.S. Supreme Court -- to desegregate the local buses.

Who was Rosa Parks?
Suddenly, Rosa Parks was a bigger name than all of the grandes dames of the civil rights movement at the midpoint of the 20th century.

And yet, many wondered, who was she?

Life and Look magazines and the newspaper headline writers of the day knew of Mary McLeod Bethune (who had died in 1955, just months before the bus boycott), and they knew of Dorothy Height, both famous women in the male-dominated civil rights movement. But they did not know Parks, who died Monday at the age of 92.

How and why did history touch her?

Other black women had refused to give up their seats on the Montgomery buses. How did it happen that she was the one who leapt into the bruised air of the Deep South? And America?

The answer, in short, is that history was ready for her. Her journey, arduous as it was, was beautifully timed.

Television was still fresh enough to alarm and shock. (The dogs snapping at the ankles of blacks in 1960s Birmingham would bring the point home even more potently.) And in 1955, a year-old station (WSFA-TV) under News Director Frank McGee focused its lenses on the city's bus boycott. "TV speeded everything up," recalls David Halberstam, whose book "The Fifties" in part chronicles Park's odyssey. "Frank McGee kept the rest of local TV from blacking the story out. Every Southern TV station didn't report on civil rights. But if you put it on TV, the newspapers couldn't censor it or avoid it."

Parks not only had a mass movement ready to rally behind her, she had the black press as well. The executives at Jet and Ebony magazines pounced on the boycott story.

'Timing is everything'
Something was in the air. The Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision had come down from the Warren Court a year earlier. But the air was a long way from being cleared of legal injustices.

"Timing is everything," allows historian John Hope Franklin.

Franklin had lived in Montgomery in the early 1940s. "In the liquor store, you would use the same clerk as the whites, but walking up to the clerk, there was a wall that separated you from the white person. So all you saw was that white person's hand. I know what Rosa Parks was up against," Franklin says.

Franklin talks about going to Richmond in 1947 to give blood for his brother, who had taken a fall from a hotel window. The transfusion left him exhausted. When Franklin finally boarded a bus, he sat in the whites-only section because there was no place else to sit. The white driver told him to get up, now.

"I told him I was just too tired," Franklin recalls.

Then he heard a cacophony of voices from the black section in the back of the bus. "The blacks were yelling at me: 'Stand your ground!' "

The air grew thick, but Franklin says he lacked the strength to move. "And you know what? That bus driver drove on off with me sitting right there. My point is, it didn't start a movement. The timing wasn't right then."

Suddenly in the eye of cameras
Parks was 42 years old at the time, married but childless. She considered her membership in the NAACP a point of special pride.

A young Martin Luther King Jr. would ultimately lead the 380-day bus boycott, along with E.D. Nixon, a stalwart of the Alabama NAACP. Her good friend Jo Ann Robinson, president of the Women's Political Caucus in Montgomery, arranged transportation for the boycotters.

Suddenly, the cameras caught her. Negro newsmen sought Parks out, lifting their fedoras to her and wondering if they might have an interview.

She looked so prim and proper in that famous photograph: She's down at the police station, being fingerprinted, in her tweedy outfit, her glasses, her hair swept up, just a little, and pressed back. A meticulous woman, who looked almost severe, as if she had just arrived from a social tea. You might imagine she had a pair of spotless white gloves in her purse.

She had, in fact, tasted integration while working on a military base. It was as if she had partaken of something precious and sweet -- and she never forgot the taste.

Virginia Durr -- Lucy's mother -- was a writer in Montgomery, and passionate about civil rights. Parks would sit with Durr before the boycott catapulted her into the limelight and the two women would chat and cackle.

"They'd talk about the dailiness of life," Lucy Durr Hackney says.

She goes on: "They'd talk about the gossip in the black community and the gossip in the white community. They'd talk about ending segregation. And they'd talk about which white men were sleeping with black women in town."

It was no secret that a transportation boycott would happen in Montgomery, Hackney says. And yet, no one knew it would be Rosa Parks. No one knew what day -- Monday? Thursday? -- she'd refuse to get up so a white man could have her seat. "The day she sat down and didn't get up was a decision she herself had made," Hackney says.

A simple, elegant declaration
"Rosa Parks was a gentle person and a real 'lady,' a term very seldom applied to black women in Alabama then," says Sheldon Hackney, Lucy's husband, a native Alabaman and former president of the University of Pennsylvania. "You would not think of her as a revolutionary. She was described as a simple seamstress, but she was anything but simple."

When the Supreme Court decision came down, the men in the movement -- Nixon, King -- dominated the TV cameras. Parks refused to complain.

Of course she lost her job. Of course there were death threats. Parks left Alabama in 1957, finally settling in Detroit.

Later in her life, as she became a symbol and a myth, a publicity machine built up around her. At times she seemed like someone caught in the klieg lights.

"She was so self-effacing," Franklin says.

For the rest of her life, Parks gave the impression that her nation-altering protest would have occurred even if there had been no TV cameras, no radio, no newspapers. Her move seemed deep as Gospel and in the end, timeless. A declaration both simple and eloquent: I am a lady. And I'd like to remain in my seat, please.