William Pretzer was five years old when Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested. It was December 1, 1955. The 42-year-old seamstress was on a city bus, en route home after a day’s work, and she refused to give her seat to a white passenger.
The full import of the event did not register with Pretzer, so young and living 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, the beginning of the civil rights movement in the United States, and Parks as the movement’s so-called “mother.”
Even now, as he looks over Parks’ police report and fingerprints, Pretzer, a senior curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, is struck by the banality of the documents. “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, through which Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged as a civil rights leader. The boycott lasted 381 days, and 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, when he helped Detroit’s Henry Ford Museum, where he worked for more than 20 years, acquire the retired GM bus in which the incident occurred. Based on a conversation with Pretzer and information conveyed in Parks’ 1992 autobiography Rosa Parks: My Story, I have annotated Parks’ police report, fingerprint card and a diagram of the bus—all held at the National Archives at Atlanta in Morrow, Georgia.