Rosa Parks

(1913– 2005)

  • Position:
    Legacy Leaders

Civil Rights Activist, Rosa Parks by refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus in 1955, black seamstress Rosa Parks (1913—2005) helped initiate the civil rights movement in the United States. The leaders of the local black community organized a bus boycott that began the day Parks was convicted of violating the segregation laws. Led by a young Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the boycott lasted more than a year—during which Parks not coincidentally lost her job—and ended only when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional. Over the next half-century, Parks became a nationally recognized symbol of dignity and strength in the struggle to end entrenched racial segregation.

On Thursday, December 1, 1955, the 42-year-old Rosa Parks was commuting home from a long day of work at the Montgomery Fair department store by bus. Black residents of Montgomery often avoided municipal buses if possible because they found the Negroes-in-back policy so demeaning. Nonetheless, 70 percent or more riders on a typical day were black, and on this day Rosa Parks was one of them.

Segregation was written into law; the front of a Montgomery bus was reserved for white citizens, and the seats behind them for black citizens. However, it was only by custom that bus drivers had the authority to ask a black person to give up a seat for a white rider. There were contradictory Montgomery laws on the books: One said segregation must be enforced, but another, largely ignored, said no person (white or black) could be asked to give up a seat even if there were no other seat on the bus available.

Nonetheless, at one point on the route, a white man had no seat because all the seats in the designated “white” section were taken. So the driver told the riders in the four seats of the first row of the “colored” section to stand, in effect adding another row to the “white” section. The three others obeyed. Parks did not.

“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired,” wrote Parks in her autobiography, “but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically… No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

Eventually, two police officers approached the stopped bus, assessed the situation and placed Parks in custody.