On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks made her historic civil rights stand by refusing to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Had she noticed who was behind the wheel, she probably wouldn’t have gotten on in the first place: The day Parks protested wasn’t her first encounter with bus driver James Blake.
More than a decade earlier, in November 1943, Parks had entered a bus driven by Blake and paid her fare. Instead of simply walking to the designated section in the back, she was told to exit and reenter through the back doors, as was the requirement for Black riders at the time. When she got off the bus to do so, Blake pulled away—a trick he was notorious for pulling.
Parks avoided Blake’s buses for the next 12 years; of course, we all know what happened the next time they met, on a day Parks said she was too tired and preoccupied to notice who was driving. Parks and three other Black passengers were ordered to give their seats up for a white passenger; when Parks refused to move, Blake had her arrested. He may have had little idea that his actions—and more importantly, hers—would be the catalyst for a civil rights revolution.
Though the times eventually changed, Blake, it would seem, did not. He worked for the bus company for another 19 years before retiring in 1974. During a brief interview with The Washington Post in 1989, the driver maintained that he had done nothing wrong:
“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 the rest of his short encounter with the reporter, Blake—who passed away in 2002—used the n-word and accused the media of lying about his role in the historic moment.
Parks had at least one more run-in with Blake, and it must have been incredibly satisfying. After bus segregation was outlawed, the civil rights leader was asked to pose for press photographs on one of the integrated buses. The bus they chose was driven by Blake.
A version of this story ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2023.