How Change Happens: The Real Story of Mrs. Rosa Parks & The Montgomery Bus Boycott

I've told the real Rosa Parks story dozens of times to diverse audiences, and have been amazed how few know it. Understanding the truth beyond the myths can help us organize better against current injustices.
12/01/2014 09:27 am ET Updated Jan 28, 2015

Many of us grew up in school learning the story of Mrs. Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott as a neat, tidy story of individual heroism. Mrs. Parks, a seamstress tired after a hard day at work courageously sat down, a young preacher, Dr. Martin Luther King, charismatically stood up. They inspired people to march, and change happened.

I've told the real story dozens of times to diverse audiences, and have been amazed how few know it. Understanding the truth beyond the myths can help us organize better against current injustices. So, here is the story as you may have never read it before with thanks to Jeanne Theoharis's The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, Taylor Branch's Parting of the Waters, and David Garrow's Bearing the Cross.

Let's begin with Rosa McCauley Parks, born in 1913. She was the granddaughter of slaves, whose grandfather taught her courage during a wave of racial violence in 1919. He sat on his porch with a shotgun telling young Rosa that he dared the "Ku-Kluxers" to come. She was soft-spoken but strong-willed and a great student. When a white boy on roller skates tried to push her off the sidewalk, she pushed back. His mother threatened to have her arrested. Another time she threatened a white boy who taunted her on the way to school with a brick. Mrs. Parks reflected later, "I'd rather be lynched than run over by them."

In 1931, she met Raymond Parks, a self-taught, politically active barber, and she married him in 1932. He was known for his willingness to stand up to racism, and was the first man she deemed radical enough to marry. He was active in the Scottsboro Nine case, in which nine young men had been falsely accused of rape and eight were sentenced to death. The Communist Party of America financed their defense and Mr. Parks became an activist in the effort, delivering food to the young men in prison and organizing protests.

She and Raymond had thought the NAACP was too elitist and cautious, but after learning a friend was involved she went to her first meeting in December, 1943. She was the only woman there, was asked to take notes, and was elected group Secretary that day, a position she'd hold for the next 12 years. As secretary, she recorded countless cases of unfair treatment, brutality, sexual violence, and lynchings, absorbing the pain of her community.

In 1942, E.D. Nixon came to the Parks home to register them to vote. A member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union, he had led a voter registration drive in 1940 when he increased the rolls of African American voters from 31 to more than 700. In 1945, he ran for President of the NAACP, the first working class man to do so. Mrs. Parks said that while he was not formally educated, he was sophisticated in ways that matter. She considered him the first person beside her family and Raymond who was truly committed to freedom.

Through the NAACP, Mrs. Parks attended NAACP events in Jacksonville, Atlanta, and Washington D.C. where she received leadership training legendary organizer Ella Baker, the NAACP's Director of Branches. Ms. Baker became a role model and mentor to her, and encouraged her to create an NAACP Youth Council in Montgomery.

She did, engaging teens to directly challenge segregation in the libraries and write letters to elected officials. And she also took on a larger role in the NAACP. In 1947, she joined the executive committee of the state NAACP, in 1948 spoke at the state convention, and she was elected State Secretary. In 1949 with her support, E.D. Nixon was elected President of the State NAACP. When the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling came down in 1954, Mr. Nixon and Mrs. Parks marched 23 African American students to the white school in town. They also took the lead on a Voter Registration drive in the 2nd Congressional District in 1954.

Fred Gray was a 24 year-old attorney, the 12th African American lawyer in Alabama and the second in Montgomery. Mrs. Parks took him under her wing, lunching with him regularly and getting him involved in the NAACP and civil rights cases.

Clifford and Virginia Durr were the town's leading white liberals. One day, Mrs. Parks was working for Virgina Durr when they discussed her NAACP work. Mrs. Durr suggested she attend the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, where integrated groups of activists developed their leadership and civil disobedience. Clifford Durr was a board member and the Durrs raised money to send Mrs. Parks to a two-week long workshop on civil rights. Because it was dangerous to be caught going to Highlander, Mrs. Durr road the bus down with Mrs. Parks.

At Highlander, she and 47 other diverse activists lived in an integrated community and developed their strategies and tactics as leaders. She came to admire Highlander director Myles Horton's spirit and sense of humor. She was in awe of Septima Clark, the lead instructor who like Ms. Baker became a role model and mentor for her as women activists. The workshop rejuvenated her, but she was pessimistic about the prospects of a mass movement in Montgomery.

While at Highlander, Claudette Colvin, the 15 year-old secretary of her Youth Council, was on her mind. On March 2, 1955, Ms. Colvin refused to move to the back of the bus and was arrested. Her arrest outraged the community. While Mrs. Parks and Mrs. Durr raised money for her case, the male leaders in town were concerned that she was too dark skinned, poor, and young to be a sympathetic plaintiff to challenge segregation. The police also charged her with assaulting officers rather than with violating segregation laws, which limited their ability to appeal.

On October 21, 1955, 18 year-old Mary Louise Smith, another Youth Council member, refused to move to the back of the bus and was arrested. She was also considered too poor and young to be sympathetic.

Then on Thursday afternoon December 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks, the Assistant Tailor at Montgomery Fair Department Store, was asked to give her seat up to a white person on her ride home from work. She refused to give up her seat and was arrested. The same bus driver, James Blake, had thrown Mrs. Parks off his bus in 1943 for refusing to move. She said "I had felt for a long time that if I was ever told to get up so a white person could sit, that I would refuse to do so."

Now, does she sound like the accidental activist we've learned about in school and popular culture, the tired seamstress who just wanted to rest her feet after a hard day at work? She was an experienced civil rights leader. She often said that the only thing she was tired of was being segregated and mistreated.

E.D. Nixon and the Durrs went to get her out of jail. Clifford Durr wanted to get the case dismissed, but E.D. Nixon saw the opportunity to use Mrs. Parks' case as an ideal middle class, respectable plaintiff to challenge segregation. Raymond Parks didn't agree. After much debate, she and Raymond made the difficult, courageous choice knowing they'd probably lose everything as a result, and they lost a lot including their jobs in the process.

Mrs. Parks called Fred Gray, who she had had lunch with that day, and asked him to represent her. Mr. Gray called Jo Ann Robinson, a leader of The Women's Political Council, a group of African American women who had been calling for a bus boycott. Ms. Robinson called E.D. Nixon, and they agreed to call a bus boycott for Monday, the day of Mrs. Parks' arraignment. Along with another staff member and two students, she used the mimeograph machine overnight at Alabama State College to print more than 15,000 fliers. Can you imagine doing that many fliers today, let alone on 1955 technology? This was especially risky since the university was funded by the segregationist state legislature. The Women's Political Council members met her at dawn and fanned the community with the fliers Friday morning.

At 6 AM, E.D. Nixon phoned Rev. Ralph Abernathy of First Baptist Church and suggested pulling the pastors together that night for a meeting. Rev. Abernathy suggested that he call the newest pastor in town Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church because he had no set alliances, enemies, and had little to lose if things didn't work out. Dr. King was reluctant at first, but eventually agreed with prodding from Rev. Abernathy. About 50 pastors met Friday night with Mrs. Parks and Ms. Robinson. They agreed to support the boycott from their pulpits on Sunday and announce a mass meeting for Monday night.

One white pastor, Robert Graetz became deeply involved. He led Trinity Lutheran church, an African American congregation, and was an outcast among whites in Montgomery. He hosted Mrs. Parks NAACP Youth Council meetings at his church. When he heard that someone had been arrested and there were going to be meetings, he called his friend Rosa Parks to find out what was happening, and was surprised to find out that she was the one arrested. As the movement grew, he was an active leader and helped get Time Magazine and others to cover the movement. His home was eventually bombed.

On Saturday, Mrs. Parks went to Alabama State College where she was conducting a leadership training for the NAACP. She was discouraged when only 5 students attended. She was no longer discouraged on Monday, when she and other leaders marveled at the empty buses and the streets filled with African American citizens walking to school and work. The boycott was on.

Leaders gathered Monday afternoon before the mass meeting to plan an organization to sustain the boycott effort, The Montgomery Improvement Association. Rufus Lewis was a business man and rival of E.D. Nixon's. He did not want Nixon to lead the new organization, so he nominated his pastor, Dr. King, to lead it, arguing that he was a neutral choice (and hoping he could pull strings from behind). That is how Dr. King was drafted into movement leadership. That night, 15,000 people attended a mass meeting and new 26 year old MIA President Dr. King's prophetic oratory inspired them to commit to the boycott. Mrs. Parks never spoke or was consulted on strategy. Sexism and a desire to make her sound more sympathetic converted the experienced activist into a "tired seamstress."

Dr. King had spoken with a pastor in Baton Rouge where they had a two-week long bus boycott in 1953, and learned about the carpool system they implemented to get residents to school, work church, and shopping errands. He assigned Rev. Bernard Simms and Rufus Lewis to help put together a transportation plan that involved 350 cars providing thousands of rides a day for 12 months. Mrs. Parks at times worked as a dispatcher.

A. Phillip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union and dean of America's civil rights leadership, sent his best organizer and strategist to Montgomery to help out. Bayard Rustin was a true outsider - a former Communist Party organizer, a pacifist who was jailed for refusing to fight in World War 2, and an openly gay black man in 1955. In February when he arrived, the police had indicted 115 members of the Montgomery Improvement Association. Rustin, a devoted Ghandian who'd spent six months in India, recommended to Nixon that they put on their Sunday best, go down to jail, and turn themselves in. They did so, confounding city leaders.

Nixon, Robinson, Parks, and King all had guns and all believed to varying degrees in self defense. Nixon and King's homes had been bombed. Protestors had been attacked. King had actually applied to the Governor of Alabama for a permit to carry his gun in his car. Rustin advised them to get rid of the guns, and mentored them on nonviolent civil disobedience throughout the campaign.

Many others stepped up, too. Georgia Gilmore created the Club from Nowhere and Inez Ricks created the Friendly Club to organize women to make and sell sandwiches, dinners, pies, and cakes during the week to raise money for the Montgomery Improvement Association. Every Monday, they would compete to see who would bring the most money to the mass meetings.

Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin formed an organization, In Friendship, to also raise money for the movement. Ms. Baker took Mrs. Parks on fundraising trips up North. In May, they hosted a fundraising event for In Friendship and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters at Madison Square Garden that attracted 16,000 people. Rosa Parks spoke, and got to meet many leaders including Eleanor Roosevelt who wrote about Mrs. Parks in her weekly newspaper column.

But Rosa Parks had been an NAACP officer and organizer for more than a decade. Her husband had been active in an effort financed by the Community Party. So it was decided that she, too, may prove a controversial plaintiff. So another woman who had refused to move to the back of the bus was chosen to be the lead plaintiff, Aurelia Browder. Along with Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, and one other victim Susan McDonald, the case Browder vs. Gayle went to the Supreme Court, and on November 13, 1956, they struck down segregation. On December 20, 1956, 382 days after Mrs. Parks' courageous stand, the boycott was over and the Montgomery buses were integrated.

So who was the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott?

All of them! Social change comes from the leadership of the many!

In our culture, we love stories about lone heroes, the single protagonist who overcomes obstacles to achieve his or her goal makes a better movie. The true story of change, however, is always far more complex. One could add many more names to this story, or analyze any other social change effort and find a similar network of leaders. It does not diminish the courage of Mrs. Parks or the prophetic vision of Dr. King to acknowledge that their leadership was part of a larger leadership narrative.

My book title and the slogan of my former organization Public Allies is "Everyone Leads." This does not mean that everyone should be in charge at the same time. We all have to lead sometimes, and follow others. It does mean that leadership is an action everyone can take, not a position few can hold, and there are ways each of us can step up to work for change we believe in. Leadership is a muscle that everyone has, and it only gets stronger with exercise and practice. Everyone has different gifts and can play different roles, but we need to build collective leadership muscle if we want to create change. It requires more inclusive, collaborative, and authentic approaches to leadership.

The first question for any social change effort has to be: what is your leadership development strategy? How are you building the leadership of the many?

When the Montgomery police interrogated Claudette Colvin about who was behind the boycott, she responded "Our leaders is just we ourselves." That should be our call to action.

I have posted a video presentation on this story here.


On Giving Tuesday, consider supporting Public Allies and other efforts to build the leadership of the many. We need them.