Rosa Parks: The misdemeanor that sparked a movement
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William Pretzer was 5 years old when Rosa Parks was arrested. It was December 1, 1955. The 42-year-old seamstress lived in Montgomery, Alabama. She was riding on a city bus. She was en route home after a day's work. She refused to give her seat to a white passenger.
The full import of the event did not register with Pretzer. After all, he was so young and lived more than 2,000 miles away in Sacramento, California. To be honest, it would take time for most people to gain enough perspective to see the protest for what it was. Today it is cited as the beginning of the civil rights movement in the United States. Parks now is known as the movement's so-called "mother."
Even now, as he looks over Parks' police report and fingerprints, Pretzer, is struck by the documents. He is a senior curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is in Washington.
"There is nothing that makes this event look extraordinary," he says. "It is being treated as a typical misdemeanor violation of the city code. In fact, that is exactly what it was."
Yet, while police dealt with the situation just like any other altercation on the city's segregated buses, Parks, her attorneys and NAACP leaders organized.
"Within the African American community, it is seen as an opportunity for progress to be made, for attention and pressure to be brought to bear on the white power structure," says Pretzer.
Parks' act of defiance inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This event helped Martin Luther King, Jr. emerge as a civil rights leader. The boycott lasted 381 days. On the 382nd day, backed by a Supreme Court ruling, the city's buses were officially integrated.
By Pretzer's definition, Parks is a history maker.
"History makers are those that sense the moment," he says.
Pretzer studied Parks' story in detail in the early 2000s. That is when he helped Detroit's Henry Ford Museum, where he worked for more than 20 years, acquire the retired bus in which the incident occurred.
Explore an analysis of Rosa Parks' arrest records, based on a conversation with Pretzer and information conveyed in Parks' 1992 autobiography Rosa Parks: My Story.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why is it important to explore the arrest records of Rosa Parks?
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