Sixty-one years ago last evening Rosa Parks boarded Cleveland Avenue bus 2857 in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, paid her fare, and took a seat in the bus’s colored section. When the whites-only section filled up, the driver ordered Parks to give her seat to a white man and move to the rear. She refused. Although she had worked all day as a department store seamstress, she was, she wrote later, no more physically tired than usual. “No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
She was arrested, charged under the segregation law of Montgomery’s city code, which gave bus drivers the police power to assign seats by race, and fined $14. Four days later, on the day of Parks’ trial, the Montgomery bus boycott began, led by a little-known 26-year-old pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr. The boycott lasted 381 days, ending only when the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated seating to be unconstitutional. Over the next month, the Ku Klux Klan bombed four black churches and the homes of several black leaders, including King’s. King was subsequently convicted of violating an Alabama law prohibiting boycotts without just cause.
“Courage,” Ernest Hemingway wrote, “is grace under pressure,” and we should not forget the courage and the dignity of Rosa Parks’ protest, nor that of the thousands who joined the often-bloody national protest for civil rights, subjected to beatings and lynchings, police dogs and fire hoses, the violence coming from one direction: the state. This is America at its ugliest and also its most noble.