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

By Karen Harris

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.

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.

Police report on Parks, December 1, 1955, page 1. (National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons)

The Arrest

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks worked a long day at the department store where she was employed as a seamstress. Lost in thought, she failed to notice that James Blake was at the wheel of her bus home and dutifully took her seat in the "colored" section. That might have been the end of it, except the bus was crowded that day, and eventually, the "whites only" section filled to capacity. Blake asked the four occupants in the first row of the "colored" section to stand so that a white man could have the row all to himself, but while the other three passengers obliged, Parks refused and was subsequently arrested.

Many believe that Parks refused to give up her seat simply because she didn't want to stand on her aching feet after a long day's work, but she "wasn't tired physically," she explained in her autobiography. "No, the only tired I was was tired of giving in." Because she was a prominent member of the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter, some speculated that she was groomed to be a protester, and while it's true that the organization was actively looking for a case they could use to challenge the constitutionality of the Jim Crow laws, Parks contended that she was not asked nor did she volunteer for a premeditated protest of the bus segregation law.

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted on February 22, 1956, by Lieutenant D.H. Lackey as one of the people indicted as leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott. (Associated Press/Wikimedia Commons)

After The Arrest

Before Parks had even left the police station, news of her arrest made its way through Montgomery. One of the people who heard about it was E.D. Nixon, president of the Montgomery chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., who posted her bail money and even met her at the jailhouse that evening when she was released. In Parks, Nixon found what he'd been looking for: a thoroughly nonthreatening black woman of unimpeachable moral character who could serve as a plaintiff in a case to challenge the segregation laws and thus a symbol of innocent black victims everywhere. When Nixon floated the idea to Parks and her husband, they also came up with the idea of a massive bus boycott. As the ridership of Montgomery's public transportation system was 70% black, a boycott was certain to hit the city where it hurt—in its coffers.

On December 5, Rosa Parks was found guilty of breaking Montgomery's segregation laws, fined a total of $14, and given a suspended sentence. At the same time, flyers were being distributed throughout the black community in Montgomery, urging them to boycott the city public transportation system. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was more successful than they could have ever hoped for: The black community banded together to form carpools to make sure they could get to work and school, and the movement gained national attention, especially after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. got involved.

Then things turned ugly. Parks and her husband were threatened and harassed, both were fired from their jobs, and detractors bombed the homes of Dr. King and Nixon. On February 21, 1956, Parks was arrested again for violating a state law against the organization of boycotts, and a photograph of her being fingerprinted at the police station ran on the front page of newspapers across the country. But you know what they say about the level of light before the dawn, and on November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation on public transportation was unconstitutional. The next day, the 381-day boycott ended.

The casket of Rosa Parks at the U.S. Capitol rotunda. (John Mathew Smith/Wikimedia Commons)

The Rest Of The Story

After the boycott, Rosa and Raymond Parks were forced to leave Montgomery and settled in Detroit, but they remained active in the Civil Rights movement throughout their lives. Parks was even presented the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor the United States grants, in 1999. When she died on October 24, 2005 at the age of 92, she became the first woman in U.S. history to lie in honor at the U.S. Capitol.

Like it? Share with your friends!

Share On Facebook

Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.