Parks was a Montgomery, Ala. seamstress in December 1955, when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus, sparking one of the most successful protests in the then-emerging American civil rights movement.
Parks was arrested for violating a city ordinance that gave preferential seating to white people on city buses. Black people had to sit in the rear while the front rows of the buses were reserved for whites. Black passengers could use the middle rows unless a white person wanted to sit there, in which case the entire row had to be vacated.
Black people also had to enter the front of the bus to pay their fare and then exit the bus and walk to the rear entrance in order to re-board and take their seats.
On Dec. 1, 1955, the bus Parks was riding home from work filled up with white passengers and the driver demanded that black passengers seated in the middle rows vacate their seats. Parks refused and was arrested.
“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true,” Parks wrote in her autobiography, according to the Washington Post. “I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
At the time of her arrest Parks was the secretary for the local chapter of the NAACP and an active member of the Montgomery African Methodist Episcopal Church. Both organizations supported equal rights for black people in the segregated South. But Parks later said that she did not plan to be arrested on Dec. 1. Tired of years of abuse and discrimination, she made a spontaneous decision.
Parks’ arrest set off the now famous Montgomery bus boycott, and lent prominence to one of its organizers, the 26-year-old Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Mrs. Parks’ arrest was the precipitating factor rather than the cause of the protest,” King later wrote, according to the New York Times. “The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices.”
King also said that Parks was a particularly valuable activist because she was known as one of the “finest citizens in Montgomery,” white or black.
During the bus boycott, large numbers of black people in the city refused to use public transportation for over a year, walking to work or hitching rides with those friendly to their cause. NAACP lawyers asked Parks to be the plaintiff in a test case designed to overturn the city’s segregation laws. Parks and her legal team took the case to the Supreme Court and won.
During the boycott, Parks lost her job and endured death threats and insults as she sought to raise money and awareness for Civil Rights causes. The legal victory temporarily spawned more violence and hatred in Montgomery, as churches and houses were bombed and activists were beaten and shot at.
In 1957, Parks moved to Detroit where she found work as a seamstress and later as a staff assistant to Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.
“Rosa was a true giant of the civil rights movement,” Conyers said Tuesday. “There are very few people who can say their actions and conduct changed the face of the nation, and Rosa Parks is one of those individuals.”