Dec

23

Celebrated as “the first lady of Civil Rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement,” Rosa Parks (February 4, 1913–October 24, 2005) helped usher in a new era of equality with her iconic act of defiance against injustice: Her refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger on December 1, 1955, became one of the symbolic pillars of the modern Civil Rights movement.

Though Parks, raised by a strong mother and nursed on pride in her heritage, was not the first African American to risk arrest by standing up to segregationist laws — preceded, most notably, by Irene Morgan in 1944 and Sarah Keys, whose seminal legal battle stretched across nearly three years between early 1953 and the end of 1955, shortly before Parks’s arrest — Parks’s brave act of protest came at the right time, when the Civil Rights movement had reached a tipping point of nation-wide restlessness. Her arrest sparked a series of demonstrations and paved the way for court decisions and legislature that subverted and eventually overturned the historical embarrassment known as the Jim Crow system.

The circumstances of Parks’s historic protest made her act of defiance particularly poignant: That fateful evening, after a long day at work, she paid her fare and boarded the downtown bus, resting into a seat in the first row of the rear section of the bus, allotted to African Americans and marked “colored.” The seats in the front, reserved for white passengers, slowly began filling up, until the section was completely occupied. The bus driver proceeded to move the “colored” sign to the row behind Parks and demanded that she, as well as the other three black passengers, move back to make room for the whites.

It was then that Parks recognized the driver: He was the same man who, twelve years earlier, had demanded that Parks disembark the bus after having paid her fare and boarded, instructing her to follow city rules and re-board from the rear door rather than the front; but when she exited to reenter through the “colored” door, the driver sped off and left Parks to walk home — at night, in the rain.

So on that December evening in 1955, Parks stood up for her nation, her community, and herself — despite the clear risk of arrest and the exhaustion of the grueling day at work. The remarks opening her autobiography resound with especial intensity of spirit:

The only tired I was, I was tired of giving in.

Above all, Parks was driven by the dream of equality in the most human of ways, recounting one of her earliest and fondest childhood memories: the “remarkable time” when a white man had treated her “like a regular little girl, not a black little girl.” That mindset remained with Parks as she refused to give up her seat nearly four decades later. She writes:

From the time I was a child, I tried to protest against disrespect treatment. But it was very hard to do anything about segregation and racism when white people had the power of the law behind them. Somehow we had to change the laws. And we had to get enough white people on our side to be able to succeed. I had no idea when I refused to give up my seat on that Montgomery bus that my small action would help put an end to segregation laws in the south. I only knew that I was tired of being pushed around. I was a regular person, just as good as anybody else. There had been a few times in my life when I had been treated by the white people like a regular person, so I knew what that felt like. It was time that other white people started treating me that way.

In her lifetime, Parks witnessed the demise of the Jim Crow system and the blossoming of Civil Rights into the most important cultural movement since Women’s Suffrage. She received countless honors, including the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest accolade awarded by the U.S. legislative branch. Exactly three years and ten days after Parks’s death in 2005 at the age of 92, the nation elected its first African American president.

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