Rosa Parks, The Jo Who Changed America's History
On a winter evening in 1955, a 42-year-old African-American woman named Rosa Parks, tired after a long day at work as a seamstress, boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama to go home. She paid her ticket and took an empty seat in the 'colored' area of the bus.
Fifty-five years ago, Montgomery had passed a law segregating bus passengers by race. The front of the bus was reserved for white citizens, the seats in the back for black citizens. But it was also customary for bus conductors to instruct a black passenger to leave the seat if there were no 'whites only' seats available.
As the bus filled up, bus driver James Blake asked her and three other black passengers to get up from their seats. Only Rosa Parks refused.
"I did this because I felt that I was being violated as a human being. I had had a hard day at work, I was physically tired as well as mentally disturbed. I was sick of this kind of thing that we had to put up with as a people because of our race," she later said in an interview with the BBC.
The consequences were swift. The bus was stopped and Parks was promptly arrested by local police. On December 5, she was found guilty of violating segregation laws, sentenced to probation and fined $10, plus $4 in court costs.
The arrest was not an isolated event, but an outgrowth of the Jim Crow laws, legislation designed to codify racism and marginalize black Americans. The laws regulated nearly every aspect of daily life, denying black Americans the right to vote and forcing segregation in schools, restrooms, public transportation, and restaurants.
This was not the first time someone was arrested after refusing to give up a seat to a white passenger. Nine months earlier, the same thing had happened to 15-year-old Claudette Colvin. But this time the act of quiet defiance proved to be a catalyst for change.
Parks' calm exterior gave no one the impression that she was a seasoned activist who had been secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). After her arrest, a boycott of the city's bus system was organized by the Montgomery Improvement Association, led by a 26-year-old pastor named Martin Luther King Jr. The boycott lasted more than a year, completely bankrupting public transport.
Meanwhile, Parks' case entered the court system. It eventually reached the US Supreme Court in December 1956, which ruled that segregation on buses was unconstitutional.
But Parks was punished for her courage: she lost her job at the department store after the boycott and faced death threats throughout the trial.
A year after the Supreme Court ruling, she and her husband, who also lost his job, moved to Detroit to escape the constant harassment.
In the years that followed, they both struggled to find work due to the backlash caused by society. She also suffered from health problems and had medical bills. Despite this, she remained deeply involved in the civil rights struggle, campaigning in Detroit for fair housing and voter registration. She volunteered for local Democratic candidate John Conyers on his campaign for Congress, who, when elected, hired her as an assistant in his Detroit office, a position she held until her retirement.
The impact of Rosa Parks' arrest went beyond simply ending racial segregation on public transportation. Her quiet strength in the face of racism led to the historic March on Washington in 1963 and the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Her refusal to give up her country fueled the momentum of a mass movement that would eventually dismantle racist policies. And she herself became a symbol of the fight for justice and equality.
In 1999, the US Congress awarded her its highest honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, calling her the 'mother of the civil rights movement'.