James F. Blake, the Montgomery, Ala., bus driver who had Rosa Parks arrested in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, has died. He was 89.
Blake died of a heart attack Thursday at his home in Montgomery. He had been in failing health for some time.
The arrest of Parks for violating Montgomery’s segregation laws was a galvanizing moment in the civil rights movement.
It thrust a young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into the national spotlight and fueled his 381-day Montgomery bus boycott. The U.S. Supreme Court later declared that Alabama’s bus segregation law was illegal.
Blake’s encounter with history came in the late afternoon on the first day of December. Parks, a seamstress, boarded his bus for her ride home from work.
According to Taylor Branch’s account of the incident in his authoritative history of the civil rights era, “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63,” the bus was crowded.
After the bus filled up, Blake noticed a white passenger standing just inside the entrance. He called back to Parks and three other black passengers sitting just behind the white section, ordering them to give up their seats and move to the back.
Although only one white needed a seat, all four blacks were required to move because the segregation statutes also stated that it was illegal for any black to sit in the same row as a white on a city bus.
When none of the four blacks moved, Blake walked back and again asked them to move.
“You’d better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats,” he said.
Three of the passengers moved, but Parks refused, saying she was not seated in the white section of the bus and didn’t think she should have to move. She remained seated even when Blake, invoking Montgomery’s Jim Crow laws, threatened to have her arrested. Blake got off the bus to call his supervisor.
“I called the company first, just like I was supposed to do,” Blake recalled in a later interview with the Washington Post. “I got my supervisor on the line. He said, ‘Did you warn her, Jim?’ I said, ‘I warned her.’ And he said, and I remember it just like I’m standing here, ‘Well then, Jim, you do it, you got to exercise your powers and put her off, hear?’ And that’s just what I did.”
Within minutes, Montgomery police officers arrived to take Parks to jail.
Over the years, Blake maintained that he was merely a city employee doing his job.
“I wasn’t trying to do anything to that Parks woman except do my job,” Blake told the Post. “She was in violation of the city codes. What was I supposed to do? That damn bus was full and she wouldn’t move back. I had my orders. I had police powers--any driver for the city did. So the bus filled up and a white man got on, and she had his seat and I told her to move back, and she wouldn’t do it.”
Parks was taken to jail and released after friends posted a $100 bail. She was ultimately fined $14--$10 for the offense and $4 for court costs.
The meeting between Parks and Blake on that historic day was not their first encounter.
In 1943, Parks was made to get off a city bus after she put in her fare and was told to re-board through the rear door. Before she could do so, the bus roared off, leaving her at the curb. It was driven by Blake.
Blake retired from the Montgomery City Lines in 1974.
An obituary Saturday in the Montgomery Advertiser noted that Blake had joined the Morningview Baptist Church in 1980.
“Mr. Blake was a kind and gracious man, always had a smile on his face and always loved everybody,” said Kem Holley, the children’s pastor at Morningview.
“I know that a lot of people make a big deal out of [Parks’ arrest], but Mr. Blake grew with the times, and he loved everybody.”
The obituary also noted that Parks had offered her condolences to the Blake family through the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development in Detroit.
"[I’m] sure his family will miss him,” Parks was reported to have said in the message.