Skip to main content

Parks felt 'determination cover my body like a quilt'

By Wayne Greenhaw
Special to CNN

Editor's note: Journalist and writer Wayne Greenhaw is co-author with Donnie Williams of the recently published book "The Thunder of Angels: The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the People who Broke the Back of Jim Crow." Greenhaw wrote this article after Rosa Parks' death.

Rosa Parks received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Obituaries (General)
Rosa Parks
Civil Rights

MONTGOMERY, Alabama (CNN) -- Rosa Parks was a mite of a woman who cast a mighty shadow.

Quiet, unassuming, shy, she appeared to be the antithesis of the symbol of a worldwide movement. Yet her simple action and strong determination embodied the power of the civil rights movement that was born after she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus on December 1, 1955.

When James F. Blake, the white driver of the bus, stepped toward the back of the bus and neared the "colored" sign behind which Mrs. Parks sat, she recognized him as the same driver who had been abusive toward her in 1943. (See video on an activist's life and times -- 2:52)

At that earlier time he'd ordered her off the bus on which she was riding after a disturbance broke out among other black riders.

Since then, she'd made it a practice never to ride a bus he was driving. On this evening, however, she supposed she was just too tired to pay attention to the driver. She'd simply gotten on, paid her dime, and found her seat.

When Blake ordered the blacks sitting on Mrs. Parks' row to move, two black women across the aisle began gathering their things. Mrs. Parks, who was sitting in an aisle seat, shifted to allow room for the black man who was sitting next to the window to move.

When Blake asked her, "Are you going to stand up?" she took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "No," she said plainly.

"Well, I'm going to have you arrested," Blake said.

Then, very clearly, she said, "You may do that."

Although she had attended the Highlander Folk School where Myles Horton taught civil disobedience and peaceful integration, and although she had been E.D. Nixon's part-time secretary in the local NAACP office, she told me years later, "When I got on the bus that evening I wasn't thinking about causing a revolution or anything of the kind. I was thinking about my husband, how he'd spent his day at the barber shop at Maxwell Air Force Base, where he worked. I was hoping he'd had a good day. I was thinking about my back aching and about the pretty sights and sounds of Christmas. I was thinking about how we were going to have a good time this Christmas, and everybody was going to be happy.

"But 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. I felt all the meanness of every white driver I'd seen who'd been ugly to me and other black people through the years I'd known on the buses in Montgomery. I felt a light suddenly shine through the darkness.

"I'd been happy early in the year when Claudette Colvin had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. I'd been with Mr. Nixon when he'd declared it exactly what the black community needed. I'd seen the light in his eyes at the thought of being able to fight against the oppression of the laws that were keeping us down. I'd called my white lady friend Virginia Durr and we started calling folks to alert them to what was going to happen. We knew we were going to have to have help for a long struggle.

"Then I saw the hurt in Mr. Nixon's eyes when he found out the Claudette Colvin case wasn't the one we could use. I saw the silent hurt take over. But I wasn't thinking about all of that while I sat there and waited for the police to come.

"All I could think about, really and truly, was the Lord would help me through all of this. I told myself I wouldn't put up no fuss against them arresting me. I'd go along with whatever they said. But I also knew I wasn't gonna give up my seat just because a white driver told me to; I'd already done that too many times. As soon as they arrested me, I knew, I'd call Mr. Nixon and let him know what had happened. Then we'd see."

Story Tools
Subscribe to Time for $1.99 cover
Top Stories
Get up-to-the minute news from CNN gives you the latest stories and video from the around the world, with in-depth coverage of U.S. news, politics, entertainment, health, crime, tech and more.
Top Stories
Get up-to-the minute news from CNN gives you the latest stories and video from the around the world, with in-depth coverage of U.S. news, politics, entertainment, health, crime, tech and more.

© 2007 Cable News Network.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us. Site Map.
Offsite Icon External sites open in new window; not endorsed by
Pipeline Icon Pay service with live and archived video. Learn more
Radio News Icon Download audio news  |  RSS Feed Add RSS headlines