Fifty-five years ago today, the Civil Rights movement was suddenly launched when Rosa Parks, exhausted after a hard day’s work, refused to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger. She was ultimately arrested and the humiliating incident galvanized a growing movement to desegregate public transportation, and marked a historic turning point in the African American struggle for freedom and equality.
Rosa Louise McCauley Parks was born in 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama where she grew up under the shadow of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. The granddaughter of former slaves the future civil rights leader attended the all-black Alabama State College in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1932 she married Raymond Parks, a barber, with whom she became active in Montgomery's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In 1943, when Rosa Parks joined the NAACP herself, she helped to mobilize a voter registration drive in Montgomery. That same year Parks also was elected secretary of the Montgomery branch. Six months before her famous protest, Rosa Parks received a scholarship to attend a workshop on school integration for community leaders.
The segregated seating policies on public buses had long been a source of resentment within the black community in Montgomery and in other cities throughout the Deep South. African Americans were required to pay their fares at the front of the bus, and then reboard through the back door. The white bus drivers, who were invested with police powers, frequently harassed blacks, sometimes driving away before African American passengers were able to get back on the bus. At peak hours, the drivers pushed back boundary markers segregating the bus, crowding those in the "colored section" so that whites could be provided with seats. On the day of her protest, Parks took her seat in the front of the "colored section" of a Montgomery bus. When the driver asked Parks and three other black riders to relinquish their seats to whites, Parks simply refused. The driver called the police, and Parks was arrested.
The Montgomery chapter of the NAACP had been looking for a test case to challenge the legality of segregated bus seating, and to woo public opinion with a series of protests. Within 24 hours of her arrest, the community had mobilized a massive boycott of the bus system. By December 5, the city buses went through their routes virtually empty. Martin Luther King Jr., who had just moved to Montgomery as the new pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church helped to mobilize and inspire the entire African American community to stand by their principles. The boycott lasted 381 days, during which time 42,000 protesters walked, carpooled, or took taxis, rather than ride the segregated city buses of Montgomery. It was the beginning of what would become the Civil Rights Movement--and it was the beginning of the end of segregation.
Of course, the protest proved to be costly for Parks. She lost her job and was unable to find other work in Montgomery. Parks and her husband finally were forced to relocate to Detroit, Michigan in 1957, where they continued to struggle financially for years. Even so, she remained unwavering in her conviction that she had done what was right. And so was the freedom of millions of Americans secured by her solitary courage.