In December of 2005, after watching a staged student presentation of the Rosa Parks bus protest that sparked the Civil Rights Movement, I was inspired (can’t think of a better word) to write a short story that incorporates that event. While Rosa Parks is not an active character in the story, I still needed to know exactly what happened from the time and place she boarded the bus, up to the stop where she would be arrested and taken off the bus.
I bought book after book on the Rosa Parks incident. I studied transcripts that are available online. I listened to interviews. I read articles, books, whatever I could find that pertained to the Montgomery, bus incident of December 1, 1955. I found a weather report for that day. I visited the actual site in Montgomery and took pictures. My story had to be absolutely correct with the known facts.
The story as a narrative went through four complete revisions and then countless rewrites until I finally ended up with my current finished story, One December. But what is most interesting is the complete confusion of facts dealing with the actual bus incident. I found no less than five different accounts of the bus incident. Everyone agrees that Rosa Parks got on a bus and everyone agrees that she rode on that same bus and everyone agrees that she was arrested and taken off the bus. But there is no agreement on the details.
Even Rosa Parks herself gives conflicting information. For instance, once she was on the bus, Rosa Parks states in her book, Rosa Parks: My Story, published in 1992, that she was arrested at “the next stop.” In a 1995 interview where Ms. Parks was asked “Could you tell us exactly what happened that day?” Ms. Parks remarked that it was “the second or third stop” where she was arrested. In his book, Rosa Parks, published in 2000, Doulglas Brinkley emphatically states “on the third stop in front of the Empire Theater” Rosa Parks was arrested.
I would like to add, my pointing out these discrepancies is definitely NOT a criticism of Ms. Parks. Getting on the bus wasn’t at all the issue, and she had been doing some shopping so it’s no big deal that she can’t recall in minute detail where she got on the bus…forty years after the fact!
The point I’m trying to make is that writing a fictional account that revolves about an historical event can be a tricky experience.
The fact that she was arrested in front of the Empire Theater is a documented fact. The Empire was torn down in 1997. On the site now stands the Rosa Parks Museum. So we definitely know where Rosa Parks was arrested. What isn’t known is where she got on the bus. In Montgomery, the plaque commemorating the spot where she “boarded” the bus is roughly one stop away from the plaque that marks the place of her arrest.
The majority of reports state that she arrived at the Empire after riding for two or three stops.
These seem like picky details, but when one is writing a narrative that hopefully will be read by thousands of readers, one needs to have the facts as close to correct as possible, especially in this litigious culture of ours.
So what does a writer do? I think in my case, I’m justified to have Rosa Parks on the bus for more than one stop. In my story I have her board the bus on North Court Street and then recounting the bus ride to the Empire Theatre stop, I use the phrase, “after a few stops” rather than state a number or the names of specific stops. I think I’m justified. When there is obvious disagreement, then the writer can make logical choices.