Rosa Parks gives a talk in my small town


It was 2 p.m. on a recent Sunday in the western Colorado town of Paonia, population 1,500, not an ideal time to gather a crowd to meet the famous Rosa Parks, the woman who kicked off the modern civil rights movement.

Yet surprisingly, about 100 people gathered at the Blue Sage Center, almost all of us white, to hear what really happened in the mid-1950s. Chairs kept getting added.

The bare stage didn’t have a chair, just a table with water. Becky Stone, one of the scholar-actors with the Colorado Humanities Black History Tour, quietly entered. Rosa Parks was 42 and all of 5 feet tall in 1955 when she refused an order from a bus driver to give up her seat to a white passenger.

But by some transmutation known only to talented actors, Becky Stone, wearing a cotton dress, sweater and flat shoes, became Rosa Parks, who died in 2005. She seemed a reserved, no-nonsense woman who had all the time in the world to talk.

She wanted to set the record straight, she told us, about why she defied bus segregation in Montgomery, Ala. She said the story that’s come down through the years was dead wrong.

Yes, her feet were tired from working all day as a seamstress at a downtown department store, but that’s not why she wouldn’t sacrifice her seat on the bus. She was “tired of giving in” because of her race.

Every bus was segregated by long tradition, she explained, with whites entitled to the front seats. A middle “colored” section allowed both races but once the bus was crowded, whites had priority and Blacks had to stand or find a seat in the back where Blacks were supposed to sit. Blacks were also expected to board through a back door. Ridership of city buses, she pointed out, was about 75% Black.

There was one insult on the bus she never forgot, she told us. It had happened 12 years earlier, when driver James Blake took her fare but ordered her to get off and board the bus from the back. Just as she got to the door, though, he drove off. From then on, she said, she’d try to avoid riding his bus. On the day of her civil disobedience, however, he was the driver who called the police and got her arrested.

The desire to confront discrimination in Montgomery had been long simmering, she said, and as secretary of the city chapter of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, she felt she was a good — as in non-threatening — candidate to make a stand. There had been other women who’d refused to relinquish seats through the years, but they’d acted alone.

Rosa Parks said her resistance had the backing of the local NAACP, a first-ever united Black community, some white allies, and the help of a local, 26-year-old pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He became a friend, she said, and credited him with starting a substitute transportation system of private cars that helped some people get to work who couldn’t walk. That was crucial, she said, because the bus boycott lasted more than a year. It ended when the Supreme Court ruled that Montgomery and Alabama laws requiring segregated buses were unconstitutional.

Her victory made national news and changed the law, but there were consequences. After she lost her job and withstood multiple threats against her family, she and her husband decided to move to Detroit. She got a tailoring job in the city, but her husband, she said, became depressed.

Her activism continued. She gave talks about how important it was to be unified to challenge segregation, and her example resonated. In the 1960s, Blacks would invite white supporters to travel on Freedom Rides to “sit-in” at lunch counters in the South. Their legal cases led to Jim Crow laws getting slapped down in state courts, followed by passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Applause for Rosa Parks just wouldn’t quit after she spoke. She answered questions for another hour, then talked to individuals who gathered around her.

That week, when I met people on the street who’d heard Rosa Parks speak, we agreed: “I wouldn’t have missed that for the world.”

Betsy Marston is the editor to Writers on the Range,, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She was a civil rights activist in the 1960s and lives in Paonia.