Today we celebrate Rosa Parks, who on this day in 1955 refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger as required by Montgomery’s segregation laws. Today is an opportunity to reflect on Mrs. Parks’s legacy, and what she can teach us about the role of litigation and activism in making social change.
Like every important story, Rosa Parks’s has layers. In elementary school, you probably learned this version: on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old Black woman, was riding the public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The driver ordered her to give up her seat to a white passenger. Tired from a long day of work, she refused, and was arrested for breaking the city’s segregation laws. Her quiet strength inspired her community, and eventually the world. Montgomery’s Black community came together under the leadership of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to boycott the bus system for over a year. Eventually, the protestors won, the bus system was desegregated, and Mrs. Parks was vindicated.
Maybe by now you know a few more layers to the story. You might know that Rosa Parks was a committed civil rights activist whose courageous act of civil disobedience resulted from years of training, and preparation. She was the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP and a respected community leader who had studied nonviolent resistance.
Another layer: Rosa Parks was not the first person of color to defy segregation on buses. Earlier that year, a Montgomery teenager named Claudette Colvin was also arrested for refusing to give up her seat to white passengers. A decade before, in 1940, a young activist named Pauli Murray was arrested for refusing to follow a similar law in Virginia. At that time, Murray asked the NAACP to represent her and challenge that law, but they did not bring this case. In 1955, the timing was finally right, and to Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues at the NAACP, Rosa Parks’s story and character made her the perfect person to challenge these unjust laws.
For many years, heroic activism was taking place across the South and lawyers were thinking strategically about how these stories could inspire successful litigation to change the law– —but it was not a straight line or a simple path for the organizers.
Rosa Parks’s story is about courage, community, timing, and yes—impact litigation. Court cases play a role in the story of Rosa Parks’s heroism and her place in the Civil Rights Movement, but they are not the centerpiece. Court decisions can change the law but without organizing and storytelling, their impact is muted. Eventually, Mrs. Parks appealed her conviction in Alabama state court for disobeying an unjust law, but that court case did not defeat the law. Instead, civil rights lawyers at the NAACP decided that even though Rosa Parks was a perfect client, they were more likely to achieve the movement’s desired outcome in federal court—so they filed a federal challenge, Browder v. Gayle, to Montgomery’s segregation laws on behalf of Claudette Colvin and several others who had refused to give up their seats. Rosa Parks was not a party to this lawsuit, which ultimately desegregated Montgomery’s bus system.
Far from diminishing the importance of Rosa Parks, the surprisingly complex story of the Montgomery bus litigation reminds us how the role that attorneys play in making social change depends on the organizing and activism led by the communities most impacted. At Law Forward, we routinely debate the merits of litigation venues, look for ideal plaintiffs, and sweat over strategic procedural details. This work is important but must be driven by those on the front lines fighting for fairness and equity all the time, all around us, in our communities. It takes all of us, moving towards justice, in our multiple lanes to accomplish change.