Rosa Parks, nee McCauley, the “First lady of civil rights,” according to Congress, was born in Tuskegee, Alabama on this day in 1913. While growing up in the Jim Crow south, Parks remembered watching the school bus pick up the white children and take them to class. Yet, Black children always had to walk. At the time, laws in Alabama essentially made providing school transportation to Black kids illegal. Parks later recalled, “But to me, that was a way of life; we had no choice but to accept what was the custom. The bus was among the first ways I realized there was a black world and a white world.”
It would not always be a way of life, thanks to her. On December 1, 1955, Parks sat in the colored section of a Montgomery, Alabama public bus. When seating in the white section filled up, bus driver James Blake demanded Parks stand and move farther to the rear to make room for oncoming white riders. She declined, instead moving to a window seat. Her defiance of the driver’s orders would lead to her arrest and spark the Montgomery bus boycott, a critical event in the fight for civil rights.
Parks was no stranger to activism. As secretary of her local NAACP chapter, she became active in investigations surrounding crimes by and against members of her community. She and her husband had also joined the League of Women Voters.
The fateful bus ride, however, would bring her to the forefront of the civil rights movement. She wrote in her autobiography, “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. 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 forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Local churches announced the bus boycott on December 4. This came a day before Parks received a citation for guilty of disorderly conduct, which came with a fine of $14 ($134 in 2020). On the day she received the penalty, community leaders distributed 35,000 leaflets that 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 grown-ups, don’t ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off the buses Monday.”
As the protest grew in length, the actions required by the Black community to end the boycott evolved. What started with calls for a first come first serve seating arrangement and the hiring of black drivers, became demands to invalidate bus segregation laws. With 75 percent of the bus system’s ridership being Black, the protest put massive financial strain on the city. As it rolled on, it became apparent to local officials the boycott would not simply fade away.
In June of 1956 a Montgomery federal court ruled that segregation laws on buses violated the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That 1868 amendment guarantees all citizens—regardless of race—equal rights and protections under state and federal laws. The city of Montgomery appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but on December 20, 1956 they upheld the lower court’s decision on December 20, 1956. The Montgomery bus boycott ended the following day, after 381 days.
The boycott highlighted the civil rights struggles occurring in the United States. More than 100 reporters visited Montgomery during the boycott to profile the effort and its leaders. This included Martin Luther King and, of course, Rosa Parks, who remained an activist throughout her life.
In 1999, the U.S. Congress awarded Parks its highest honor, the Congressional Gold Medal. She passed away in 2005 at the age of 92. The bus Parks rode that sparked the boycott is now in The Henry Ford.