The effort eventually led to a Supreme Court decision that ended segregation on transportation in the United States.
Born Rosa Louise McCauley on Feb. 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Ala., she was the daughter of a carpenter and a teacher. At age 2, she moved to her grandparents’ farm in rural Alabama with her mother and younger brother, Sylvester. It was not long after that Rosa Parks developed a thirst for education and deep faith in God that would sustain her for the challenges that would lay head.
After attending the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, a private school founded by liberal northern women in the United States, Parks continued her education at the Alabama State Teachers College. She then settled with her husband, Raymond Parks, a barber, in Montgomery.
Often called the “mother of the civil rights movement,” Parks was no stranger to trying to defeat what had been known as the “Jim Crow South.” She and her husband worked for the local Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP. She even served as the organization’s secretary and later became an adviser to the NAACP Youth Council.
Parks also was involved with the Montgomery Voters League, a group that helped black people pass a test so they could register to vote.
At the time, segregation laws required blacks to use “colored” restrooms, water fountains and even separate entrances to restaurants and buses.
It was customary for black bus patrons in Montgomery to board the bus and pay their fare to the driver; then exit and re-board the bus using the back entrance. Sometimes the bus would drive off before paying customers could make it to the back door.
Black passengers were required to sit on the rear of the bus behind white passengers.
On Dec. 1, 1955, after a tiring day of work as a seamstress, Parks would make a decision that would change history. She later said about that evening, “I did not get on the bus to get arrested; I got on the bus to go home.”
As the bus became overcrowded, the bus driver asked Rosa to give up her seat for a white passenger, and she refused. The driver then threatened to call the police and have her arrested. She replied, “You may go ahead and do so.”
After being jailed, Parks was granted one phone call and contacted E.D. Nixon, a prominent member of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP.
Her bail was posted by Clifford Durr, a white lawyer and husband of the woman who employed Parks as a seamstress. After talking to her mother and husband, she decided to challenge Montgomery’s laws that segregated public transportation.
Later that night, at a meeting of the Women’s Political Council, 35,000 handbills were made and circulated to all black schools in Montgomery. According to Time magazine, they read: “We are … asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. … You can afford to stay out of school for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grownups, don’t ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off the buses Monday.”
Monday came, and so did a strong chance of rain, but blacks in Montgomery stayed off the buses. Many walked, joined several car pools, or caught black-operated cabs that stopped at public bus stops for 10 cents, which was the standard bus fare.
The following day, Parks was found guilty of failure to comply with a city ordinance and fined $14, which she did not pay. As a result, the Montgomery Improvement Association was formed. Its leader was a young minister of Dexter Baptist Church and a relative newcomer to the city, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Montgomery Bus boycott lasted 381 days and financially devastated Montgomery’s public transportation system.
Parks’ case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and in November 1956, the high court ruled that segregation on transportation is unconstitutional. Montgomery’s public transportation system was legally integrated Dec. 21, 1956.
After losing her job and receiving many death threats, Rosa and Raymond Parks moved to Detroit in 1957. Rosa Parks got a position in the office of Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat.
Although Parks never quite became comfortable with the spotlight, she understood her integral role in the civil rights movement.
“I understand I am a symbol,” she wrote. However, “I am still uncomfortable with the credit given to me for starting the bus boycott; I would like people to know I was not the only person involved. I was just one of many who fought for freedom.”
Parks’ commitment to equality did not end with desegregation of transportation; she went on to become a vocal opponent of apartheid in South Africa and the co-founder of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping youth reach their fullest potential.
In February of 1990, she was honored at Washington’s Kennedy Center on her 77th birthday and would later receive several prestigious awards, including the Medal of Freedom, presented by then-President Clinton in 1996. Three years later, she was given the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor.
Troy State University erected the $10 million Rosa Parks Library and Museum in her honor in December 2000. It features a replica of the bus where the exchange between Rosa and bus driver took place, and historic documents loaned by the City of Montgomery.
The bus on which Parks refused to surrender her seat was purchased in 2001 for $492,000 and is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
In September 1994, Parks was robbed and beaten in her Detroit apartment. She wrote of the event, “I pray for this young man and the conditions in our country that have made him this way. Despite the violence and crime in our society, we should not let fear overwhelm us. We must remain strong.”
She fully recovered from the incident and participated in the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. in October 1995.
Parks wrote several books, including “Quiet Strength,” which chronicles her life and the historical day in 1955, as well as a children’s book entitled, “Rosa Parks: My Story.”
She died on Oct. 24, 2005 of natural causes at her home in Detroit at age 92.