Rosa Parks

Interview with the Academy of Achievement - June 2, 1995

Rosa Parks
June 02, 1995
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ACADEMY: In 1955 you refused to give up your seat to a white passenger on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Your act inspired the Montgomery bus boycott, the event historians call the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Could you tell us exactly what happened that day?

PARKS: I was arrested on December 1st, 1955 for refusing to stand up on the orders of the bus driver, after the white seats had been occupied in the front. And of course, I was not in the front of the bus as many people have written and spoken that I was -- that I got on the bus and took the front seat, but I did not. I took a seat that was just back of where the white people were sitting, in fact, the last seat. A man was next to the window, and I took an aisle seat and there were two women across. We went on undisturbed until about the second or third stop when some white people boarded the bus and left one man standing. And when the driver noticed him standing, he told us to stand up and let him have those seats. He referred to them as front seats. And when the other three people -- after some hesitancy -- stood up, he wanted to know if I was going to stand up, and I told him I was not. And he told me he would have me arrested. And I told him he may do that. And of course, he did. He didn't move the bus any further than where we were, and went out of the bus. Other people got off -- didn't any white people get off -- but several of the black people got off. Two policemen came on the bus and one asked me if the driver had told me to stand and I said, "Yes." And he wanted to know why I didn't stand, and I told him I didn't think I should have to stand up. And then I asked him, why did they push us around? And he said, and I quote him, "I don't know, but the law is the law and you are under arrest." And with that, I got off the bus, under arrest.

ACADEMY: Did they take you down to the police station?

PARKS: Yes. A policeman wanted the driver to swear out a warrant, if he was willing, and he told him that he would sign a warrant when he finished his trip and delivered his passengers, and he would come straight down to the City Hall to sign a warrant against me.

ACADEMY: Did he do that?

PARKS: Yes, he did.

ACADEMY: Did the public response begin immediately?

PARKS: Actually, it began as soon as it was announced. It was put in the paper that I had been arrested. Mr. E.D. Nixon was the legal redress chairman of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, and he made a number of calls during the night, called a number of ministers. I was arrested on a Thursday evening, and on Friday evening is when they had the meeting at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King was the pastor. A number of citizens came and I told them the story and from then on, it became news about my being arrested. My trial was December 5th, when they found me guilty. The lawyers Fred Gray and Charles Langford, who represented me, filed an appeal and, of course, I didn't pay any fine. We set a meeting at the Holt Street Baptist Church on the evening of December 5th, because December 5th was the day the people stayed off in large numbers and did not ride the bus. In fact, most of the buses, I think all of them were just about empty with the exception of maybe very, very few people. When they found out that one day's protest had kept people off the bus, it came to a vote and unanimously, it was decided that they would not ride the buses anymore until changes for the better were made.

ACADEMY: When you refused to stand up, did you have a sense of anger at having to do it?

PARKS: I don't remember feeling that anger, but I did feel determined to take this as an opportunity to let it be known that I did not want to be treated in that manner and that people have endured it far too long. However, I did not have at the moment of my arrest any idea of how the people would react. And since they reacted favorably, I was willing to go with that. We formed what was known as the Montgomery Improvement Association, on the afternoon of December 5th. Dr. Martin Luther King became very prominent in this movement, so he was chosen as a spokesman and the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association.

ACADEMY: What are your thoughts when you look back on that time in your life. Any regrets?

PARKS: As I look back on those days, it's just like a dream. The only thing that bothered me was that we waited so long to make this protest and to let it be known wherever we go that all of us should be free and equal and have all opportunities that others should have.

ACADEMY: What personal characteristics do you think are most important to accomplish something?

PARKS: I think it's important to believe in yourself and when you feel like you have the right idea, to stay with it. And of course, it all depends upon the cooperation of the people around. People were very cooperative in getting off the buses. And from that, of course, we went on to other things. I, along with Mrs. Field, who was here with me, organized the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development. Raymond, my husband--he is now deceased--was another person who inspired me, because he believed in freedom and equality himself.

ACADEMY: You were married during the bus incident.

PARKS: Yes, I was.

ACADEMY: How old were you?

PARKS: When I was arrested, I was 42 years old. There were so many needs for us to continue to work for freedom, because I didn't think that we should have to be treated in the way were, just for the sake of white supremacy, because it was designed to make them feel superior, and us feel inferior. That was the whole plan of racially enforced segregation.

ACADEMY: What people inspired you as a child?

PARKS: My family, I would say, my mother, and my maternal grandparents. I grew up with them. My mother was a teacher in a little school, and she believed in freedom and equality for people, and did not have the notion that we were supposed to live as we did, under legally enforced racial segregation. She didn't believe in it.

ACADEMY: How did she impart that to you?

PARKS: Just by her attitude and the way she talked. We were human beings and we should be treated as such.

ACADEMY: She instilled that feeling in you.

PARKS: It was just the way I grew up. Yes, she did. Of course, my grandfather had the same ideas, as well as my grandmother.

ACADEMY: What was their background?

PARKS: Both of them were born before the emancipation, before slavery ended. And they suffered a lot, as children they were in slavery and of course, after slavery was not that much better, but I guess it was some better. They were farmers in a rural area in Alabama.

ACADEMY: They must have suffered.

PARKS: Yes, especially my grandfather.

ACADEMY: Was there a teacher that influenced you?

PARKS: My mother was a teacher and I went to the same school where she was teaching. My very first teacher was Miss Sally Hill, and I liked her very much. In fact, I liked school when I was very young, in spite of the fact that it was a one-room school for students all ages, from the very young to teens, as long as they went to school. It was only a short term for us, five months every year, instead of the regular nine months every year.

ACADEMY: You still flourished in this school, despite all that.

PARKS: I liked to read books anyway, and my mother taught me to read even before I began school.

ACADEMY: What books did you like to read?

PARKS: Mostly the little stories that they had in the school books, and fairy tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood, and those stories, just what they had for young children.

ACADEMY: Do you think reading is important?

PARKS: Yes, it's very important. And I always liked to read, especially historic books. I still do like to read.

ACADEMY: What was it like in Montgomery when you were growing up?

PARKS: Back in Montgomery during my growing up there, it was completely legally enforced racial segregation, and of course, I struggled against it for a long time. I felt that it was not right to be deprived of freedom when we were living in the Home of the Brave and Land of the Free. Of course, when I refused to stand up, on the orders of the bus driver, for a white passenger to take the seat, and I was not sitting in the front of the bus, as so many people have said, and neither was my feet hurting, as many people have said. But I made up my mind that I would not give in any longer to legally-imposed racial segregation and of course my arrest brought about the protests for more than a year. And in doing so, Dr. Martin Luther King became prominent because he was the leader of our protests along with many other people. And I'm very glad that this experience I had then brought about a movement that triggered across the United States and in other places.

ACADEMY: What would you like to tell us about your life since the bus boycott?

PARKS: I would have to take longer than a minute to give my whole synopsis of my life, but I want to let you know that all of us should be free and equal and have equal opportunity and that is what I'm trying to instill and encourage and inspire young people to reach their highest potential.

ACADEMY: Tell us about the goals of the Parks Institute.

PARKS: We work with young people, from the ages of 11 to 17. Our main program is the Pathways to Freedom. And we'll be going from Memphis, Tennessee through ten other states, and Washington, DC, and to Canada. It began July 13th and ends August 8th. We hope to take as many young people and their chaperons as possible throughout these areas, and stop and have workshops and programs. They'll be traveling in buses, and we hope that will inspire and give them a sense of history and also to encourage them to be concerned about their self and history and motivated to reach their highest potential. We always encourage them to have a spiritual awareness, because I feel that with the spirit within and our belief in ourselves and our faith in God that we will overcome many obstacles that we could not with negative attitudes. I want to always be concerned with being positive, and them being positive and believing in themselves, and believing that they should be good citizens and an asset to our country and for the world. And I believe in peace too, and not violence.

ACADEMY: What has the American Dream mean to you?

PARKS: I think the American Dream should be to have a good life, and to live well, and to be a good citizen. I think that should apply to all of us. That it is the land of the free and the home of the brave, and I believe it should be just that for all people. Who can think of themselves as human beings and that they will enjoy the blessings of the freedom of this country.

ACADEMY: Are we moving as quickly as you might like in that direction?

PARKS: We still have a long way to go, we still have many obstacles and many challenges to face. It's far from perfect, and it may never be, but I think as long as we do the best we can to improve conditions, then people will be benefited.

ACADEMY: You don't get negative about the negative things.

PARKS: No, I don't. I try to not think of those things that we cannot control, but I think if we continue to work with positive attitudes, conditions will be better for more people.

ACADEMY: Tell me about your husband.

PARKS: He believed in freedom and equality and all the things that would improve conditions.

ACADEMY: He was an inspiration to you.

PARKS: Yes, he was.

ACADEMY: When did he die?

PARKS: In August of 1977.

ACADEMY: What advice would you give to a young person who wants to make a difference?

PARKS: The advice I would give any young person is, first of all, to rid themselves of prejudice against other people and to be concerned about what they can do to help others. And of course, to get a good education, and take advantage of the opportunities that they have. In fact, there are more opportunities today than when I was young. And whatever they do, to think positively and be concerned about other people, to think in terms of them being able to not succumb to many of the temptations, especially the use of drugs and substances that will destroy the physical health, as well as mental health.

ACADEMY: What would you say to a kid who's in trouble now?

PARKS: The reason we start with them so young is to try to get them a good family life, before they get into that area. Of course there are those who maybe have strayed away, and I would certainly advise them to find some means of helping themselves, even if they've gotten into some problems.

ACADEMY: Family is important to you.

PARKS: Yes, it is, very important. Of course, we have so many broken homes now. Young people need some means of being encouraged and to try to find some role models, people in school, in church, and other organizations. They need to be organized to work together, instead of being so scattered about and not having any positive outlook on life.

ACADEMY: Did you feel Dr. King had a special gift?

PARKS: Well, when I first met him it was before I was arrested. I met him in August of 1955, when he came to be the guest speaker at an NAACP meeting and I was secretary. I was very impressed with his delivery as a speaker and, of course, his genuine friendliness as a person. And his attitude, of course, was to work and do whatever he could in the community for the church to make a difference in the way of life we had at that time. And I was really impressed by his leadership, because he seemed to be a very genuine and very concerned person, and, I thought, a real Christian.

ACADEMY: Did it surprise you when he became a national hero?

PARKS: No, not really, because I just felt that he filled the position so well. He was the type of person that people really gravitated towards and they seemed to like him personally, as well as his leadership.

ACADEMY: A warm person?

PARKS: Yes, he was.

ACADEMY: It has been an honor to sit with you here, today. Thank you so much for spending this time with us, Mrs. Parks.

PARKS: Thank you.

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