One day in 1943, an African American seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama was stopped from boarding a bus and told she needed to use the back door instead. She tried to comply, but the driver drove off before she could board. Rosa Parks had grown accustomed to such indignities, but this event would lay the groundwork for her famous refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger 12 years later.
Parks’s arrest on Dec. 1, 1955 would spark the Montgomery bus boycott that, along with the brutal lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till, fueled the modern Civil Rights Movement. Her act of civil disobedience eventually prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that laws segregating buses are unconstitutional. It’s both a testament to the power of one person to change the world and a case study in mass mobilization against injustice.
On Rosa Parks Day, Dec. 1, we honor the sacrifice and bravery of this American hero and the crucial, though often fraught, tradition of civil disobedience in the service of forming a more inclusive nation.
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A Lifetime of Activism: Setting the Record Straight
Perhaps the iconic image of a supposedly mild-mannered woman sitting quietly on the bus was more palatable for sympathizers at the time. However, the truth is that Rosa Parks grew up in a family that championed the efforts of activist and writer Marcus Garvey, married an activist who worked to free the falsely accused Scottsboro Boys, and became an active member of the NAACP at the age of 19.
Her defiance when asked to vacate her seat on the bus was no random occurrence, but rather a carefully planned act of civil disobedience intended to bring about real change. Prior to this iconic moment, Parks worked to expand voter registration, sought justice for the victims of racial violence, pushed for the desegregation of public schools, and promoted both nonviolent resistance and the right to self defense.
She was an experienced and complex freedom fighter long before she refused to relinquish her bus seat on Dec. 1, 1955. In notes recovered after her death in 2005, she recounts picking up a brick once when she was a young girl to challenge a bully, later telling her grandmother, “I would rather be lynched than live to be mistreated and not be allowed to say ‘I don’t like it.’”
Parks’s fiery passion and prior activism is important context, as her famous act of defiance 65 years ago did not occur in a vacuum. Never one to back down, Parks understood the fundamental importance of standing up to oppression.
Righteous Defiance in the Face of Injustice
The fact that Parks was arrested (and convicted) for refusing to follow a law that legalized racial segregation tells you all you need to know about the intersection of the law and actual justice. As Frederick Douglas famously said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand…The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
Parks, along with other civil rights leaders and activists, realized that the only way to truly bend the arc of history toward justice was to resist Jim Crow laws and other legal barriers to equity. This spirit of civil disobedience would be a driving force throughout the ongoing struggle for racial justice, embraced by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, John Lewis, and countless others who have literally risked their lives for a better tomorrow.
To engage in an act of civil disobedience is to ignore or challenge laws, policies, or other aspects of authority that you believe to be unjust. In fact, virtually all of the social justice advancements made since the founding of the United States, many of which we now take for granted, began with acts of civil disobedience. But, as the arrest of Rosa Parks illustrates, we don’t necessarily have the right to engage in such acts (which, of course, is often the point).
When defying unjust laws or unreasonable demands from authorities, there’s always the chance of getting arrested or being met with violence. It’s a risk that civil rights leaders understand and are often willing to take when the only other alternative is to wait for a change that may never come.
The Struggle for Justice Continues
The Civil Rights Movement is often referred to as a period in history with a beginning and an end, even though the ideal of equal justice for all has yet to be realized in full. The struggle began long before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus and, unfortunately, has a long way to go. The 2020 protests over the police killing of George Floyd illustrate this reality. And while we do have a constitutional right to protest, there are no guarantees that this right will be honored all the time.
Lawful protests are sometimes met with disproportionate force and unlawful resistance, while outside agitators sometimes destroy property or escalate violence for the purpose of discrediting lawful protesters. Thanks to mobile technology (including the Rocket Evidence app) it’s harder than ever for bad actors to lurk in the shadows.
To protest and (when warranted) engage in acts of civil disobedience is fundamental to democracy and essential to the realization of a more just and equitable society. However, it’s important to be prepared for the worst while you hope for the best. This includes having a plan for the possibility that you or a loved one is arrested during a protest, even if you’re acting fully within your rights.
Rosa Parks was prepared before she took action on a Montgomery bus in 1955, knowing she would probably get arrested, and fully aware of how it would change her life forever. She also knew how utterly important it was to be the change she wanted to see in her country.
This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.