How historically accurate is Doctor Who’s Rosa Parks episode?

Rosa adds sci-fi elements to American history – but it stays surprisingly close to the real events

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Doctor Who’s relationship to real history can be a little spotty, whether it’s adding giant wasps to the life of Agatha Christie and alien witches to William Shakespeare’s or just dropping a massive Cyberman robot in Victorian London.

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But series 11’s third episode Rosa, written by Malorie Blackman with Chris Chibnall, depicts Rosa Parks’ real-life Montgomery bus protest surprisingly accurately, right down to some of the more minor details about Parks’ life.

Of course, it’s not 100% accurate – some parts of the story have to be added for dramatic effect, and as far as we know she never actually hung out with any time travellers – but avoiding any major spoilers, we’ve gone into some of the real historical detail that Blackman and Chibnall managed to include.


Rosa’s life

American Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks poses as she works as a seamstress, shortly after the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott, Montgomery, Alabama, February 1956 (Getty)
American Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks poses as she works as a seamstress, shortly after the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott, Montgomery, Alabama, February 1956 (Getty)

Born Rosa Louise McCauley in 1913, as depicted in Doctor Who (and played by Vinette Robinson) Parks originally had ambitions to be a teacher, before family illness (specifically the need to care for her grandmother and mother) forced her to give up those dreams.

She married Raymond Parks in 1932, and worked various jobs over the years before ending up as a seamstress by 1955, working in a Montgomery Department store. Generally speaking, Doctor Who’s depiction of her home life seems to have been fairly accurate.


1943

Vinette Robinson and the real Rosa Parks
Vinette Robinson and the real Rosa Parks

The very first scene in Rosa shows Rosa Parks trying to get onto a bus driven by James Blake (the same driver she famously faced off with in 1955) 12 years before the main events of the episode, but she’s forced to disembark and try to enter through the back to get on the “coloured” section.

When she does, however, Blake cruelly drives off leaving her behind – and while one might assume this scene was added for dramatic effect this particular encounter did happen, and it WAS the same bus driver who caused Parks problems both times.

In the same year Parks became active in the civil rights movement, joining the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and becoming secretary.


Emmet Till

At one point during the episode the murder of a black teenager called Emmet Till is mentioned, with the Chicago-born 14-year-old apparently killed while visiting some Southern relatives after someone saw him talking to a white woman.

This well-known crime took place in August 1955, when Till was accused of flirting and grabbing married 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, leading her husband and his half-brother to abduct the boy before mutilating him and murdering him.

A month later the pair were acquitted by an all-white jury (though, protected by double jeopardy, they did admit their guilt in 1956), and his death is now seen as a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement, and Rosa Parks’ Montgomery Bus Protest in particular.

Notably, four days before her protest Parks attended a meeting at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery that addressed the murder and the killers’ acquittal, and in later years she has said that she was very familiar with the case.


The bus protest

Rosa Parks sits in the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, after the Supreme Court ruled segregation illegal on the city bus system on December 21st, 1956. Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955 for refusing to give up her seat in the front of a bus in Montgomery set off a successful boycott of the city busses. Man sitting behind Parks is Nicholas C. Chriss, a reporter for United Press International out of Atlanta.
Rosa Parks sits in the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, after the Supreme Court ruled segregation illegal on the city bus system on December 21st, 1956. Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955 for refusing to give up her seat in the front of a bus in Montgomery set off a successful boycott of the city busses. Man sitting behind Parks is Nicholas C. Chriss, a reporter for United Press International out of Atlanta.

Without giving too much away, the Doctor Who take on Rosa Parks’ bus protest follows pretty closely with the reported history, right down to some of the words the participants are believed to have said to each other.

The custom at the time was for any customers in the “coloured” section of the bus to move if there weren’t enough seats for white passengers, and when driver James Blake noticed that two or three white passengers were standing he’s reported to have said “Y’all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.”

He then moved the “coloured” sign denoting the different sections one row back, a regular occurrence within the Montgomery bus service (the signs were designed to be moved).

Of the four black passengers sitting in the row (which was directly behind the last row of the “whites” section) three moved, but Parks decided not to, later suggesting that Emmet Till’s murder motivated her to stay.

Vinette Robinson as Rosa Parks and Joshua Bowman as Krasko in Doctor Who
Vinette Robinson as Rosa Parks and Joshua Bowman as Krasko in Doctor Who

“When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’” Parks later recalled during a 1987 TV interview.

“And he said, ‘Well, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to have to call the police and have you arrested.’

“I said, ‘You may do that.'”

Parks was indeed arrested, but her stand against injustice ended up becoming a massive rallying point for civil rights, inspiring a mass bus boycott by black passengers for over a year and forcing the bus companies to end their segregating policy on December 21st, 1956.

Her activism continued for the rest of her life, and she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996.

Notably, Parks wasn’t the first black bus passenger to refuse to move seats in this situation. Others arrested for the same act included Bayard Rustin in 1942, Irene Morgan in 1946, Lillie Mae Bradford in 1951 and Sarah Louise Keys in 1952.

Earlier in 1955 there’d even been another Montogomery bus protest from Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith, who refused to move seats nine months before Parks did.

However, it was Parks’ case that really caught the public’s imagination and used as a rallying point, which is why it’s remembered so much more clearly today.


The law

Rosa Parks is fingerprinted following her arrest
Rosa Parks is fingerprinted following her arrest

Interestingly, it wasn’t actually the law for black passengers to give up seats in their section if white passengers were standing. While Montgomery passed a city ordinance in 1900 to segregate the buses by race and conductors were allowed to assign seating, no passenger was legally required to give up their seat for another.

However, as time went on the custom became that bus conductors would tell black passengers to move if there weren’t any white-only seats left, and some may have assumed it was actually the law.

Technically, Parks hadn’t even violated the Montgomery City code, as she wasn’t sitting in the white-only section when she refused to move. Despite this, on December 5th, 1955 Parks was found guilty of disorderly conduct and violating a local ordinance, and fined $10 plus $4 in court costs (around $130 today, or £100).


Martin Luther King

Rev. Martin Luther King, director of segregated bus boycott, discusses strategies with a team including Rosa Parks (front row) in 1956
Rev. Martin Luther King, director of segregated bus boycott, discusses strategies with a team including Rosa Parks (front row) in 1956

In real life, Parks and the legendary Civil Rights leader did already know each other before the bus boycott, as seen in tonight’s episode.

King was a newcomer to the area at the time and a little-known minister at Parks’ Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

However, King was chosen to be the face of the official Montgomery Bus Boycott and this catapulted him into notoriety, beginning his time as the spokesman and driving force behind much of the Civil Rights movement.

Doctor Who airs on BBC1 on Sundays

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This article was originally published on 21 October 2018