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The Thread That Unraveled Segregation

Rosa Parks at her sewing machine in 1956, shortly after the start of the bus boycott.
Rosa Parks at her sewing machine in 1956, shortly after the start of the bus boycott. (By Don Cravens -- Time & Life Pictures Via Getty Images)

How and why did history touch her?

Other black women had refused to give up their seats on the Montgomery buses. How did it happen that she was the one who leapt into the bruised air of the Deep South? And America?

The answer, in short, is that history was ready for her. Her journey, arduous as it was, was beautifully timed.

Television was still fresh enough to alarm and shock. (The dogs snapping at the ankles of blacks in 1960s Birmingham would bring the point home even more potently.) And in 1955, a year-old station (WSFA-TV) under News Director Frank McGee focused its lenses on the city's bus boycott. "TV speeded everything up," recalls David Halberstam, whose book "The Fifties" in part chronicles Park's odyssey. "Frank McGee kept the rest of local TV from blacking the story out. Every Southern TV station didn't report on civil rights. But if you put it on TV, the newspapers couldn't censor it or avoid it."

Parks not only had a mass movement ready to rally behind her, she had the black press as well. The executives at Jet and Ebony magazines pounced on the boycott story.

Something was in the air. The Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision had come down from the Warren Court a year earlier. But the air was a long way from being cleared of legal injustices.

"Timing is everything," allows historian John Hope Franklin.

Franklin had lived in Montgomery in the early 1940s. "In the liquor store, you would use the same clerk as the whites, but walking up to the clerk, there was a wall that separated you from the white person. So all you saw was that white person's hand. I know what Rosa Parks was up against," Franklin says.

Franklin talks about going to Richmond in 1947 to give blood for his brother, who had taken a fall from a hotel window. The transfusion left him exhausted. When Franklin finally boarded a bus, he sat in the whites-only section because there was no place else to sit. The white driver told him to get up, now.

"I told him I was just too tired," Franklin recalls.

Then he heard a cacophony of voices from the black section in the back of the bus. "The blacks were yelling at me: 'Stand your ground!' "

The air grew thick, but Franklin says he lacked the strength to move. "And you know what? That bus driver drove on off with me sitting right there. My point is, it didn't start a movement. The timing wasn't right then."

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