Series 11’s first historical story saw the Doctor and her new friends arrive in Montgomery, 1955, on the eve of one of the most significant civil rights events in history.
Rosa saw the TARDIS crew strive to ensure history was preserved – but how accurately did Doctor Who depict that history in the first place? Blogtor Who has set out to see just how close the events of Rosa are to true life.
Needless to say, there are spoilers galore ahead for Rosa. If you haven’t already seen the episode, make sure you catch up – it’s available on BBC iPlayer or other on-demand services – before continuing!
James Blake And 1943
In Rosa: In the opening scene, we see an altercation between Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson) and bus driver James Blake (Trevor White) set in 1943. Rosa boards a bus at the front pays her fare and moves towards the ‘coloured’ section at the back, but Blake makes her get off to reboard at the rear – before shutting the doors and driving away without her.
Twelve years later, Blake is the driver of the bus that Rosa catches on 1st December 1955, when he orders her to move seats for a white passenger. In Rosa it’s Graham who remembers the name of ‘Blake the Snake’, reminiscing about the moment when his late wife Grace first discovered he was a bus driver and said to him, “You better not be like James Blake.”
In reality: Although the 1955 incident is well-known, the 1943 incident between Blake and Parks also happened in real life. Black passengers were not allowed to walk past white passengers on the way to their seats at the back of the bus, and so if white passengers were already on board a black passenger had to pay their fare at the front, get off, and get back on using the rear entrance.
Blake’s action of driving off instead of letting his passenger reembark was a trick Montgomery bus drivers were known for. It often resulted in the stranded passenger having to walk or – as Rosa did on that occasion – waiting for the next bus. Parks swore to herself that she would never ride a bus with Blake again, but on the night of her 1955 protest, she was preoccupied with her thoughts and did not notice the identity of her driver until after she had paid her fare.
After Parks’ protest, Blake remained a bus driver with the same bus company until his retirement in 1974. In later life, he was extremely reluctant to talk about the events of 1955. Doorstepped by a journalist in 1989, Blake said:
“I wasn’t trying to do anything to that Parks woman except do my job. 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.”
In Rosa: Soon after the Doctor and her friends arrive in Montgomery, Ryan is slapped by a white man after trying to return a dropped glove to the man’s wife. After defusing the situation, Rosa admonishes Ryan by telling him about Emmett Till, a young black boy visiting Mississippi whose body was found in the river after a ‘couple of words’ to a white woman.
In reality: Sadly, this story is true. Chicago-born Emmett Till was only 14 when he went to visit relatives in Mississippi over the summer of 1955. Whilst at a convenience store there he spoke to Carolyn Bryant, one half of the married couple who owned the store – but like Ryan in Rosa, Till was unaware of the social conventions of the South.
Four days later, Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother JW Milam kidnapped Till from his great-uncle’s house and lynched him; Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River several days later. What happened at the store is unknown; accusations included flirting and wolf-whistling, and Carolyn Bryant testified that he had grabbed her waist and used obscene language – allegations she withdrew decades later. Roy Bryant and Milam were acquitted by an all-white jury of Till’s murder. They admitted in a magazine interview a year later that they had killed the youngster, but were protected by double jeopardy laws preventing someone being tried twice for the same crime.
Till’s death is regarded as one of the catalysts for the civil rights movement. In November 1955, Rosa Parks attended a mass meeting at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, at which she was deeply affected by the news that Till’s killers had been acquitted. It was only four days later she refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white passenger, and Parks later explained that she had Till on her mind: “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back.”
Rosa Parks’ Life
In Rosa: Holed up in a motel, the Doctor, Ryan, Yaz and Graham brainstorm everything they know or can find out about Rosa’s life in an effort to protect her. They discover she worked as a seamstress at Montgomery Fair department store and lived in Cleveland Court. Later in the episode, whilst repairing the Doctor’s coat, Rosa tells Yaz that she wanted to be a teacher, but had to drop out of school to look after her unwell grandmother and mother.
In reality: All true. Rosa grew up just outside Montgomery with her maternal grandparents, mother, and younger brother Sylvester. She attended school up until secondary level, but left to care for her grandmother – and later her mother – when they became ill. Parks was encouraged to finish her schooling by her husband Raymond, whom she married in 1932. She went on to complete her education a year later.
Parks did indeed work as a seamstress at Montgomery Fair department store, and lived in Cleveland Court, an apartment complex on Cleveland Avenue. At the time of Rosa’s protest and the subsequent city-wide boycott, 634 Cleveland Court was home to Parks, her husband, and her mother. In 1965 Cleveland Avenue was renamed to Rosa Parks Avenue, and 2001 the apartment building containing the Parks flat was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Segregation In Montgomery
In Rosa: At various points in Rosa we see the gaping disparity between the status of white and black people in society. As well as the bus segregation that forms such a focal point of the episode, the Doctor and friends are refused service in a diner due to the colours of Ryan and Yaz’s skin, and later on, the four sneak themselves into a motel room that advertises itself as ‘whites only’.
In reality: Montgomery in 1955, along with most of the Southern US at the time, was subject to ‘Jim Crow’ laws enforcing racial segregation in public places, facilities and transportation. Despite the principle of ‘separate yet equal’ status for African-Americans, facilities for black people were chronically underfunded and sometimes even nonexistent.
Rules for buses were introduced as far back as 1900, when Montgomery passed a city ordinance segregating bus passengers by race, giving drivers powers to assign seats as necessary. The front seats were for white passengers, with the back seats for black passengers. Black people could also sit in the middle section, but were required to move if there were no white-only seats left. As seen in Rosa, these sections were marked out by signs which could be moved at the driver’s discretion.
Fred Gray and Dr King
In Rosa: After Ryan’s unsuccessful attempt to ‘stalk’ Rosa, she invites him to a meeting that night, also attended by her husband Parks (David Rubin), Fred Gray (Aki Omoshaybi), and the local church minister, Dr King (Ray Sesay) – who Ryan immediately clocks as the iconic civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.
In reality: In 1955 Rosa Parks and her husband Raymond were both active members of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP – the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. Fred Gray, another real-life member, was an attorney who worked on several important civil rights cases, including filing the legal case that led to the eventual desegregation of Montgomery buses.
As surprising as it may seem, Parks knew Martin Luther King Jr in real-life, too. At the time Dr King was an unknown church minister at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, but rose to prominence through his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King would go on to become a key figure of the civil rights movement, organising the 1963 March on Washington – where he delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech – and the 1965 Selma-Montgomery marches.
Rosa’s Bus Protest
In Rosa: Although Krasko (Josh Bowman) makes several small changes to history in an attempt to ensure that Rosa’s bus protest doesn’t go ahead, the Doctor and her friends are ultimately successful in thwarting his efforts. Rosa’s defiant refusal to give up her seat happens just as it should – although the TARDIS team have to stay on board to ensure the bus is full – and ends with her being led away by police.
In reality: The Doctor and her friends notwithstanding, the events in Rosa are a faithful portrayal of Park’s real-life protest. On 1st December 1955, at around 6pm, Parks boarded the Cleveland Ave bus after work. She paid her fare and took a seat in the row directly behind the section reserved for white passengers. As the bus filled, Blake moved the signs to increase the scope of the white-only section and ordered Parks’ row of passengers to move, with all except Parks obeying.
Even the dialogue used in Rosa is taken straight from the real-life event. According to Parks, Blake tried to get the black passengers to move by saying, “Y’all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.” When Parks refused, Blake threatened to have her arrested, to which Parks simply said, “You may do that.”
However, Parks wasn’t the first to refuse to give up her seat in protest at segregation laws. Her most notable predecessor was Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl who was arrested for her actions in March 1955. However, black community leaders deemed her unsuitable as a figurehead for their cause for several reasons, including her age and her pregnancy a few months after being arrested. Colvin later spoke against segregation laws when she was one of the plaintiffs in the Browder vs Gayle case, which eventually led to desegregation of Montgomery’s buses.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
In Rosa: Back in the TARDIS at the end of Rosa, the Doctor fills the others in on the effects of Rosa’s refusal to give up her seat for a white passenger. As well as describing the boycott which began soon after Rosa’s arrest, the Doctor also reveals that it lasted over a year, and only ended with the desegregation of buses in the city.
In reality: As the Doctor says, Parks’ protest was absolutely the spark for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. After the success of a one-day boycott which took place on Monday 5th December 1955 – the day of Parks’ court date – the Montgomery Improvement Association was founded to lead the rest of the boycott effort, led by Martin Luther King Jr.
The boycott lasted for 381 days, with black people either travelling in carpools, using black-operated taxis, or walking during this time. Black people had been the majority users of public transport, and the bus company took a significant financial hit as a result of the boycott.
With Parks’ own case potentially taking years to work its way through appeal courts, lawyer Fred Gray filed the Browder vs. Gayle case challenging Montgomery’s segregation laws. In 1956 segregation on Montgomery’s buses was ruled to be unconstitutional. The boycott was called off, and Montgomery was ordered to desegregate its buses, doing so on December 21st 1956.
In Rosa: The Doctor tells the others at the end of the episode that although life was still hard for Rosa – with both her and her husband losing their jobs after the protest – her fight for equal rights continued. The Doctor shows them real-life footage of Rosa Parks receiving the Congressional Medal in June 1999 from President Clinton, recognising her as a ‘living icon for freedom’. She then opens the TARDIS doors to reveal the impact that Rosa had on the universe – Asteroid 284996, otherwise known as Rosaparks.
In reality: It’s true that Rosa lost her job as a seamstress, with her husband quitting his soon after as he was forbidden by his boss to talk about his wife’s case or the protest. The pair relocated from Montgomery to Detroit, and Parks continued to fight for civil rights, marching both in Selma and Washington. However, life continued to be a struggle. Her husband and brother both passed away in 1977, her mother two years later, and Parks suffered her own illnesses as well as financial strain.
Despite her own increasingly poor health, Parks continued to devote enormous energy to civil rights causes, for which she was honoured both in her later years and posthumously. As seen in Rosa, Parks was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal – the highest honour for a civilian – which dubbed her the ‘Mother of the Modern Day Civil Rights Movement’. And in 2014, Asteroid 284996 – discovered in 2010 by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer – was named Rosaparks.
Time travelling goings-on aside, Rosa is a stunningly faithful retelling of Rosa’s refusal to give up her seat and the events surrounding it. Writers Chris Chibnall and Malorie Blackman – herself making history as the show’s first black writer – handle this period of history with great care and sensitivity, ensuring Rosa’s important story is told as accurately and yet as engagingly as possible.
Doctor Who continues on Sunday 28th October with Arachnids in the UK, starring Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, Mandip Gill as Yaz, Tosin Cole as Ryan and Bradley Walsh as Graham. Arachnids in the UK is written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Sallie Aprahamian.