NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Sunday, November 29, 2015, 2:00 AM
Mineola Dozier Smith, 94, was on the bus the day Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white man.
MONTGOMERY, ALA. — Mineola Dozier Smith closed her eyes tightly and rocked back in her chair.
Slowly, the images started coming back to her — the crowded bus, the hostile driver, the quiet woman whose act of defiance galvanized the civil rights movement.
Smith, now 94, was reminiscing back to that day 60 years ago when she witnessed Rosa Parks refuse to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus in Montgomery, Ala.
“Back then, they would beat you for nothing. They would just beat you like you was a dog or a cat,” Smith told the Daily News in her most extensive interview to date.
“I was a little bit afraid. I wanted her to get up,” Smith added. “If I’d have sat down, I’d have gotten up. But the Lord had the right person, in the right place, at the right time.”
Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on bus in Montgomery, Ala, helped spark the civil rights movement.
The momentous chain of events sparked by Parks’ arrest is now etched into history books.
There was the year-long Montgomery bus boycott, the lawsuit challenging discrimination on public transportation and finally the Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation on buses.
Parks herself became a civil rights icon, credited with inspiring the decade-long movement that culminated in the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
But largely absent from the public record are eyewitness accounts from inside the bus where Parks took her stand.
In the early 1950s, Parks was a seamstress while Smith worked as an elevator operator. The pair lived just a few blocks apart and commuted to work together.
Six decades later, Smith agreed to tell the story of what she saw that day on Dec. 1, 1955.
In a pair of interviews over consecutive days, the Montgomery native described in remarkable detail the incident that provided her a front-row seat to history.
The story begins in the early 1950s, when Parks and Smith both worked at the Montgomery Fair department store.
Parks was a seamstress while Smith worked as an elevator operator. The pair lived just a few blocks apart and commuted to work together.
“We used to ride the same bus, Cleveland Avenue, to work and from work,” Smith said at a library near her home earlier this month.
“She was one of the sweetest persons anybody would ever meet.”
The first of December started out like any other day. Parks and Smith clocked into work by 8 a.m. and finished their shifts at 5 p.m.
They walked a half-block to the bus stop at Commerce St., Smith wearing her gray-blue work suit and Parks in civilian clothes.
“It didn’t really make sense to me, but I still obeyed,” said Smith of the segregated transportation. “Mama taught us to obey.”
The bus fare was only 10 cents. Like every other black rider, Smith and Parks, after dropping a dime in the metal box at the front of the bus, walked back outside and entered through the back door.
The seats at the front were reserved for whites. A “colored section” was located behind them. But the discrimination didn’t end there.
Under the city’s bus system, black riders could be ordered to the back of the bus. As more white passengers got on, the bus drivers would slide to the rear a sign that acted as a sort of segregation demarcation line.
“It didn’t really make sense to me, but I still obeyed,” said Smith, who grew up in the tiny Alabama town of Union Springs. “Mama taught us to obey.”
But on that Monday evening in December, Rosa Parks was in no mood to obey.
The soft-spoken seamstress, then 42, gave no indication to Smith that she was planning to defy authority as she sat down in the front of the “colored section.” Smith remained standing behind her, holding an overhead strap for balance.
The bus rumbled one block west to Lee St. Among the passengers who boarded there was a well-dressed white man.
“Tall and distinguished looking,” Smith recalled. “He looked like he could have been a minister.”
“She was one of the sweetest, kindest, most respectful ladies I’ve ever known,” Smith said of Parks.
The bus driver ordered Parks and the other black people sitting in her row to get up.
Most of them got up immediately. Parks didn’t budge.
The driver burst out of his seat and confronted Parks.
“He asked her three times,” Smith recalled. “She didn’t say a word. She just looked out the window like she couldn’t hear.”
For 381 days, black Montgomery citizens walked, carpooled or found other ways to get around the city during the bus boycott.
The driver was incensed, and Smith immediately feared for Parks’ safety.
“I could tell he was upset because he hit his pocket like he was reaching for a gun,” Smith said. “But he looked like, ‘Aww. There’s too many people here. Better not reach for my gun.’”
The driver, later identified as James Blake, stepped off the bus and called the police.
Smith couldn’t believe how quickly the officers showed up. They marched on the bus and started manhandling Parks.
“It looked funny all these buses running all over Montgomery, and nobody on them,” Smith said.
“They came on the bus and handcuffed her like she had stolen something,” Smith said. “They treated her like a criminal. Put her hands behind her back and took her off the bus.”
Smith and the other black riders were fuming. They all walked off the bus in protest and found other ways home.
“I could see if it had been an old white woman who needed the seat, but this was a man. He should have given her her seat, in my book,” Smith said.
“But I didn’t say anything. I just prayed, ‘Lord, please don’t let anything happen to Rosa Parks.’”
The night Parks was found guilty, Martin Luther King Jr. presided over a mass meeting at the Holt Baptist Church.
Parks was charged with disorderly conduct and violating a local ordinance.
There were other blacks who were arrested for refusing to relinquish their bus seats — other women even — but news of Parks’ case rocketed around the black neighborhoods and lit a fuse.
Parks was well-known in town, a church-going NAACP secretary with an impeccable reputation.
Activist and professor Jo Ann Robinson immediately started rallying support for a bold form of protest — a full-fledged bus boycott.
Smith sits “on the bus Victory ride” in a display with replicas of passengers at the Rosa Parks Museum.
By the time Parks’ Dec. 5 trial rolled around, Montgomery’s black community was ready to mobilize.
City buses rolled through the town mostly empty, a sight that emboldened the protesters.
“It looked funny all these buses running all over Montgomery, and nobody on them,” Smith said. “We walked and we walked. We said we didn’t care how long it takes, we’re going to walk until justice is done.”
Parks was found guilty and fined $ 10. That night, the first of many “mass meetings” was held at the Holt Baptist Church.
A sign tells the history of the Montgomery bus boycott at the stop where Parks boarded the bus.
A 26-year-old minister from a nearby congregation addressed the thousands in attendance. His name was Martin Luther King Jr.
“We, the disinherited of this land, we who have been oppressed so long, are tired of going through the long night of captivity,” King told the packed crowd as he called for the boycott to continue. “And now we are reaching out for the daybreak of freedom and justice and equality.”
For 381 days, they walked, carpooled or found other ways to get around the city.
An appeal filed by Parks’ lawyer got tied up in the courts. But a separate case challenging the constitutionality of segregated busing, known as Browder vs. Gayle, made it all the way to the Supreme Court.
In Nov. 1956, the highest court in the land outlawed segregation on public transportation.
Smith still remembers the way she felt the first time she rode a bus after the ruling was handed down.
“We could sit wherever we wanted to,” said Smith, who raised four children. “We was happy it was all over.”
Donna Beisel, a scheduling specialist at the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, said Smith is the only living person known to the institution who witnessed Parks’ arrest.
“You can read about what happened on the bus,” Beisel said. “But to actually listen to someone who was there gives you a deeper sense of what really happened.”
Smith lost touch with Parks after the civil rights icon moved to Detroit in 1957.
Parks died in October 2005 at the age of 92.
Ten years later, Smith still can’t fully wrap her head around how such a gentle, humble woman played such a key role in securing rights for African-Americans.
“She was one of the sweetest, kindest, most respectful ladies I’ve ever known,” Smith said before referencing the second-class treatment faced by blacks in the 1950s.
“I thought it was going to be like that ’til the end of time,” she added. “But the Lord, the Lord had other plans.”