Rosa Parks: Stories, Biography, & Things You Didn't Know About The Civil Rights Leader

By | February 2, 2021

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Civil rights leader Rosa Parks smiles while people gathered around her applaud at a ceremony held in her honor. (Angel Franco/New York Times Co./Getty Images)

When she was arrested on December 1, 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a bus for a white passenger, Rosa Parks became a symbol of the Civil Rights movement. We may remember Parks as a reserved 42-year-old seamstress who stood up for what she believed in by sitting down, but she had a long history of activism prior to the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Rosa Parks's Early Life

Rosa Parks's mother, a schoolteacher, impressed upon her daughter the importance of education, but Parks was forced to leave school in the 11th grade to take care of her terminally ill grandmother. She intended to return to school after her grandmother died, but by that time, her mother had also taken ill. When she was 19 years old, Rosa met and married Raymond Parks, a barber 10 years her senior, and with his support, Parks finally earned her diploma.

He also introduced her to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Rosa joined the Montgomery chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. in 1943, began learning about the growing movement for racial equality and attending workshops on social justice, and by the time of her 1955 arrest, she had worked her way up to chapter secretary.

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Rosa Parks in 1955, with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the background. (National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons)

Leading Up To Her Arrest

Rosa Parks's arrest was just one in a long line of other incidents on Montgomery public buses that resulted in the arrests of four black women. The first was 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, who was arrested nine months before Parks for refusing to give her seat to a white passenger. Fun fact: As secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., Parks was directly involved in raising money for Colvin's defense. Shortly thereafter, three other women—Mary Louise Smith, Susie McDonald, and Aurelia Browder—were arrested for violating segregation laws on the Montgomery buses, and all four of them became plaintiffs in the groundbreaking Browder v. Gayle case that resulted in the Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public transportation was unconstitutional.

Interestingly, the incident that resulted in her arrest was not the first time that Rosa Parks clashed with bus driver James Blake. In 1943, when the enforced procedure for black passengers was to pay their fare at the front of the bus and then step off and board again through the back door, Blake had kicked Parks off his bus after she tried to walk through the "whites only" section to her seat at the back rather than exit and reenter. An enraged Blake grabbed the sleeve of her coat and tried to physically remove her, and though she recalled that she was afraid the incident would turn violent, she calmly exited the bus on her own and waited for the next one. After that, Parks avoided riding on Blake's bus, making a habit of identifying the driver before she boarded, but on the day of her arrest, she was distracted.