State Route 58 cuts an east-west line through the center of California, linking Barstow, in San Bernardino County, to Santa Margarita, at its juncture with coastal Highway 101. It threads through desert and farmland, industrial centers and rural communities. When it reaches Bakersfield, it crosses some of the city’s historically black and minority communities.
A stretch of that state highway, from the intersections of Highway 184 to 99, carries the weight of honoring one of the nation’s civil rights icons. If you are speeding along the freeway, you might miss the sign telling you that you are driving on the Rosa Parks Highway.
Sunday marks the birthday of Parks, who is commonly regarded as the “mother of the civil rights movement.”
Her link to Bakersfield started in 2002, during a Martin Luther King Jr. event in town when then-Assemblyman Dean Florez, D-Shafter, announced his plan to introduce legislation honoring Parks.
“There are a lot of reasons why Bakersfield needs to honor Rosa Parks,” Florez explained at the time, proposing the designation to give people — especially people of color — pride that Parks stood up against prejudice to benefit all Americans.
“A lot of people see Bakersfield as Buck Owens Boulevard, but Bakersfield is diverse.” Florez noted as he worked to build community support for the highway naming, which he said was the first such designation honoring Parks in California. Contending it sent a strong message to the rest of California, Florez said the designation, which passed the Legislature on an overwhelming bipartisan vote, “says a lot about diversity.”
Community leaders, including the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the Bakersfield City Council, and now-retired Ward 1 Councilwoman Irma Carson, endorsed the recognition. Carson, a native of Louisiana, who grew up in the segregated South, was the city’s first black policewoman and first black city councilwoman. She also was among a group of city leaders, who had hosted Parks years earlier when she spoke in Bakersfield.
At the time, then-Mayor Harvey Hall said he was pleased Bakersfield would inherit the name of one of the nation’s most important civil rights leaders. “Anytime Bakersfield can be on the front row of positive recognition, it certainly has my support.”
The legislation Florez authored noted, “The courage and conviction of Rosa Parks laid the foundation for equal rights for all Americans.”
Born in 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama, Rosa Louise McCauley, grew up on her maternal grandparents’ farm outside of Montgomery. She attended segregated schools, dropping out of the city’s Industrial School for Girls in the 11th grade to care for her ailing mother and grandmother, and to work in a shirt factory.
In 1932, at the age of 19, she married local barber Raymond Parks, who was active in the local NAACP chapter. Parks encouraged his wife to get her high school diploma and she became the chapter’s secretary.
In the summer of 1955, as resistance built against the South’s oppressive “Jim Crow” laws, Parks was befriended by Clifford and Virginia Durr, a politically liberal, white Montgomery couple, who sponsored her enrollment in the Highland Folk School, a Tennessee education center for activism in workers’ rights and racial equality.
It was with this background and preparation that Parks’ encounter on a Montgomery city bus triggered a massive, months-long bus boycott and related U.S. Supreme Court decisions that declared segregation in public facilities unconstitutional.
At the turn of the 20th century, Southern states emerge from the defeat of the Civil War by rewriting their constitutions to cement into law segregated and discriminatory practices, which included disenfranchising black and poor white voters.
Resentment of these laws festered and by the 1950s, the segregation of the Montgomery city bus system became a flashpoint. More than 75 percent of the passengers and revenues supporting the system came from the black community. But city law demanded black passengers sit in rows of seats at the back of the bus. Black passengers would have to enter the bus through the front door to pay their fares, and then have to get off the bus and re-enter through a rear door to take their seats. The number of rows reserved for white passengers was determined by the bus driver.
On the evening of Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks finished her shift as a department store seamstress and boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus for home. She sat in the front row of the designated “black section.”
As the bus proceeded along its route, it began to fill, with passengers standing in both the white and black sections. To free up seats for white passengers, the bus driver moved the sign and directed Parks and three other black passengers to get up and stand in the back. Three did as they were ordered. Parks refused.
While the city code required segregated buses, the code did not require passengers to relinquish their seats when a bus became crowded. Rather, it was simply “common practice” for drivers to make such a demand.
The driver called the police to remove and arrest Parks. On Dec. 5, she was convicted of violating the city code, and ordered to pay a $10 fine and $4 in court fee.
During the four days between Parks’ arrest and court appearance, the black community organized. Thousands of fliers were printed calling for a one-day boycott of the bus system. Black taxi drivers and church vehicles were used to transport many people to work, while others walked up to 20 miles to keep the city buses empty.
With this initial success, organizers formed the Montgomery Improvement Association, headed by newcomer pastor Martin Luther King Jr., to continue the boycott for 381 days. Despite arrests, Klan bombings of organizers’ homes and government retaliation, the boycott financially devastated the bus system. The boycott, which ended in the wake of U.S. Supreme Court rulings, demonstrated to the world the power of nonviolent people organizing against injustice. It helped ignite a decade-long campaign that led to the signing of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Parks and her husband paid a heavy price for their involvement in the boycott. Losing their jobs, they moved with Parks’ mother to Detroit to live with relatives. Parks eventually joined the staff of Congressman John Conyers and continued her work in civil rights.
Reportedly, she contributed so much of her money to civil rights causes that as she grew old, the childless Parks struggled to pay her bills.
But in her later years, she received much recognition for her contributions to the civil rights movement. Besides the NAACP awarding Parks its highest award in 1996, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor bestowed by the executive branch. The following year, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award given by the legislative branch. Time magazine also included Parks in its 1999 list of the 20 Most Influential People of the 20th Century.
When she died on Oct. 24, 2005, at the age of 92, a memorial service was held at the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Montgomery. Condoleezza Rice, who is also an Alabama native, spoke during the service and noted she would probably not have become secretary of state without Parks’ sacrifices. Parks’ body was flown to Washington, D.C., where it laid in state in the Capitol Rotunda.
City officials in Montgomery and Detroit designated the front seats of city buses reserved with black ribbons in honor of Parks until her burial in Detroit next to her husband and mother.
Sunday is Rosa Parks' birthday. If she were still alive, she would be 105 years old. At the site of her 1955 arrest is the Rosa Parks Museum. Opened in 2000 by Alabama’s Troy University, the museum looms tall in the cradle of the Confederacy. It was built just a few blocks from the State Capitol, where a star under the portico marks the place Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president. It is just a few blocks from where Martin Luther King Jr. preached in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
Step through the doors of this museum and you will feel the fatigue and humiliation of a segregated society, where the mere color of a person’s skin deprived them of equal access to even the simplest of services, like a 10-cent ride on a city bus.
Videos, exhibits and taped testimonials allow visitors to experience the brutality and sacrifices endured by thousands of Montgomery’s black residents, who in 1955 said: Enough and no more!
In her 1992 autobiography, “My Story,” Parks explained: “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Dianne Hardisty retired as The Californian’s editorial page editor. Reach her at Dhardisty123@gmail.com.