Seeking Another Federal Holiday (and a Day Off for Federal Employees)

A new bill would add a federal holiday to honor Rosa Parks. What was her role, and is history of her role in this event accurate?

2021 has been a good year for creating or proposing new federal employee holidays. Several in Congress are proposing another new federal holiday that would be labeled “Rosa Parks Day”.

New Federal Holiday Proposed

Congressman Jim Cooper (D-TN), along with Congressional Black Caucus Chair Joyce Beatty (D-OH) and Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL), have introduced the Rosa Parks Day Act. The bill (H.R. 5111) would create the federal holiday called Rosa Parks Day. It would be scheduled for December 1st, based on a press release from the sponsors, as that was the date of her arrest in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama.

For federal employees, each new federal holiday usually means another day off of work for many in the federal workforce with full pay and benefits and extra pay for those who are required to work on a holiday.

Who Was Rosa Parks?

Rosa Parks is known in history as a woman who refused to give up a bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. She was arrested on December 1, 1955 for violating a local law requiring racial segregation. Local laws dictated that African American passengers sat at the back of the bus while whites sat in front.

Rosa Parks, née Rosa Louise McCauley was born February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama. She died on October 24, 2005, in Detroit, Michigan.

Her actions and the subsequent publicity inspired some local community leaders to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott was led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The boycott lasted more than a year. It ended when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional

Local laws on the topic were sometimes in conflict. One law stated segregation was to be enforced. Another law stated no person could be asked to give up a seat even if there were no other seats open. If the white section became full, African Americans had to give up their seats in the back. It was a local custom that bus drivers had the authority to ask a Black person to leave a seat for a white rider to sit down.

While appeals progressed and related lawsuits were filed and went through the judicial system, and ending up before the U.S. Supreme Court, there was violence in Montgomery. The Montgomery Bus Boycott created considerable anger among Montgomery’s white population. Violence ensued including the bombing of Martin Luther King’s Montgomery home.

Why is Rosa Parks the Public Face for Civil Rights?

The Supreme Court case decision was not cited as the Rosa Parks case. Instead, it is Browder v. Gayle. The actual case that reached the Supreme Court involved a 15-year-old girl, Claudette Colvin, among others.

Colvin was actually the first person arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus—nine months before Rosa Parks‘ action of refusing to give up her bus seat.

Colvin was one of five plaintiffs in the first federal court case that came before the Supreme Court decision known as Browder v. Gayle, and challenged the segregation of buses in Montgomery. Browder was actually the case the ended the Montgomery Bus boycott.

With this background, why did Rosa Parks become known as a civil rights hero instead of Claudette Colvin?

Blame it on the lawyers and local civil rights leaders who were seeking more favorable publicity for their case and for the issue they were pursuing.

Montgomery’s Black leaders did not want to publicize Colvin’s actions. Colvin has said, “Young people think Rosa Parks just sat down on a bus and ended segregation, but that wasn’t the case at all.” 

Instead, in part, because Colvin was pregnant during the legal proceedings and was not a married woman, she was not thought to be the best person to be the public face for the case.

It is now widely accepted that Colvin was not given credit for her actions by civil rights leaders. As Rosa Parks said: “If the white press got ahold of that information, they would have [had] a field day. They’d call her a bad girl, and her case wouldn’t have a chance.”

And, to quote an extensive article in a British paper that researched the role of Colvin in breaking up the role of segregation in Montgomery and elsewhere, Parks had another advantage over Colvin in coming up with creating the public face for the civil rights cause:

Colvin was also very dark-skinned, which put her at the bottom of the social pile within the black community – in the pigmentocracy of the South at the time, and even today, while whites discriminated against blacks on grounds of skin colour, the black community discriminated against each other in terms of skin shade. The lighter you were, it was generally thought, the better; the closer your skin tone was to caramel, the closer you were perceived to be to whatever power structure prevailed, and the more likely you were to attract suspicion from those of a darker hue.

Congressional representative and Congressional Black Caucus Chair Joyce Beatty (D-OH) is credited with this eloquent tribute to Rosa Parks in a press release touting the creation of Rosa Parks Day:

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks sat so that this nation could stand up for the values that our democracy holds so dear. Her quiet, dignified courage helped inspire a civil rights movement that changed this country for the better. As the U.S. Representative for Montgomery, I’m so proud to introduce the Rosa Parks Day Act to make December 1st a national holiday in her honor. Such a day will ensure the memory of her brave sacrifice lives on in America’s story for generations to come.

There is no mention of Claudette Colvin in the press release or in the text of the bill. Of course, there is no requirement for historical accuracy in creating a new federal holiday. There is also no indication that the Congressional representatives sponsoring the bill, including the one from Montgomery, Alabama, are aware of the role of Claudette Colvin or if they considered whose who were more instrumental in the outcome of the event to be as relevant as the publicity of the bill.

Colvin was a plaintiff in the Browder v. Gayle lawsuit that desegregated buses. Parks was not. Colvin herself says she does not have any hard feelings about another person getting the recognition she may have deserved.

Colvin has often said she is not angry that she did not get more recognition. She is disappointed.

She does not know why more effort was not made to tell her story. “I feel like I am getting my Christmas in January rather than the 25th,” Colvin said.

When the 25th anniversary of the boycott arrived, she expected the four plaintiffs from the lawsuit to be recognized. “We were the ones who ended it,” Colvin said of segregation on buses. “They didn’t mention us.”

Should Rosa Parks Day be passed into law by statute, the new holiday will not recognize any of the others involved either.

Juneteenth Established as Federal Holiday in 2021

As noted above, other federal holidays have been proposed in 2021 and one came into existence this year.

On June 18, federal employees received a new paid holiday: Juneteenth. With the addition of the Juneteenth holiday, federal employees currently have 11 standard paid holidays in a year. The 11 holidays do not include occasional additions to the list such as Inauguration Day every four years for federal employees in the Washington, DC area or unexpected holidays such as an extra day off for Christmas Eve.

Juneteenth is now a federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of African-American slaves. It is also often observed for celebrating African-American culture. 

A proposal was also made for a new holiday for federal employees to have a day off for voting. At the time of this writing, that has not become a law.

List of Federal Employee Holidays

This is the standard list of current federal holidays for the federal workforce according to the Office of Personnel Management:

  • New Year’s Day
  • Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Washington’s Birthday
  • Memorial Day
  • Independence Day
  • Labor Day
  • Columbus Day
  • Veterans Day
  • Thanksgiving Day
  • Christmas Day

Cost of a Federal Holiday: $600 Million Per Year

While the rationale for creating holidays is often quoted in press releases and widely publicized, there is a cost of new holidays.

Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) has said this about creating a paid holiday for federal employees: “I am happy to celebrate Juneteenth. I think we should celebrate the fact that we did remove an ‘original sin’ by emancipating slaves. I simply don’t believe we should make American taxpayers in the private sector pony up $600 million a year, $6 billion over 10 years, to give federal workers, who already are paid quite generously and have quite a few days off, one more paid day off.”

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47