By Prerana Korpe
“You must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right.” These words, spoken by civil rights activist Rosa Parks, exemplify the role of civil disobedience used by Parks and other leaders in the fight for equality in the United States.
On Dec. 1, 1955, 42-year-old Parks boarded a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in routine fashion, but her ride home from work changed the course of history. Parks had taken a seat near the middle of the bus, just behind the “whites only” section. When the bus filled up and no seats remained, the driver ordered four African Americans, including Parks, to clear their seats so that a white man could sit down. All but Parks acquiesced.
Parks was arrested for her act of civil disobedience and convicted of violating the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the South until 1965. Her arrest and subsequent appeal helped spark a 381-day-long boycott of public buses led by Martin Luther King Jr. and a court case that took Alabama’s discriminatory laws all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Considered the earliest substantial demonstration against segregation, the Montgomery Bus Boycott used the First Amendment’s guarantee to “petition the government for a redress of grievances” and brought national press attention to segregation in Alabama. The boycott ended when bus segregation was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1956.
A symbol of dignity and strength in the face of discrimination, Parks came to be known as “the mother of the civil rights movement.” She famously declared, “I would like to be known as a person who is concerned about freedom and equality and justice and prosperity – for all people.”
Visitors can explore the relationship between the news media and the 1960s civil rights movement and learn more about how citizens used their First Amendment freedoms to fight for equality in two powerful Newseum exhibits: “Make Some Noise: Students and the Civil Rights Movement” (on display indefinitely) and “1965: Civil Rights at 50” (on display through Jan. 3, 2016).