On the afternoon of December 1, 1955, a 42 year old African American woman returning home from her job as an assistant tailor in Montgomery, Alabama, boarded bus 2857 on the Cleveland Avenue line.
When told to give up her seat for a white man, she refused and was arrested for violating the city’s racial segregation laws. That woman was named Rosa Parks, and that act of civil disobedience became one of the most publicized symbols of the civil rights movement.
It led to the 13 month Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rosa Parks truly changed America with one simple act.
Here are five facts that you may not know about the legendary civil rights activist:
1. Parks was not the first African American woman who was arrested for refusing to yield her seat on a Montgomery bus. Indeed, nine months before, 15 year old Claudette Colvin became the first Montgomery bus passenger to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat for a white passenger. In fact, Parks was involved in raising funds for Colvin’s defense. After Colvin, three other women also refused to give up their seat — Aurelia Browder, Mary Louise Smith, and Susie McDonald. The four women were plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle where the U.S. Supreme Court order bus segregation unconstitutional.
2. Parks had a prior confrontation with the bus driver who demanded that she give up her seat in 1955. Twelve years before that fateful day in 1955, James Blake, the bus driver, had ejected Parks from his bus for refusing to re-enter the bus through the back door after she had paid her fare. In her autobiography, she wrote
“I never wanted to be on that man’s bus again. After that, I made a point of looking at who was driving the bus before I got on. I didn’t want any more run-ins with that mean one.”
And after the Supreme Court issued its decision in Browder v. Gayle and the Montgomery Bus Boycott ended on December 21, 1956, one of the newly integrated buses that Parks boarded for press photographs just happened to be driven by Blake.
3. Contrary to popular belief, Parks was not sitting in a white-only section. She was seated in the front row of a middle section of the bus open to African Americans if seats were vacant. Once the whites-only seats filled on subsequent stops, and a white man was left standing, the driver demanded that Parks and three others in the row leave their seats. While the other three eventually moved, Parks did not.
And despite stories to the contrary, Parks’ refusal was not orchestrated or planned. In fact, she was so preoccupied on that day that she boarded the bus driven by James Blake, the driver whose bus she had vowed never to enter. “If had been paying attention,” she wrote, “I wouldn’t even have gotten on that bus.”
4. It is commonly believed that Parks refused to leave her seat because her feet were tired. In her autobiography, she debunked that myth. “I was not tired physically,” she wrote, “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.”
5. The civil rights legend was forced to move from Montgomery shortly after the boycott started. Weeks after her arrest, Parks lost her job at the department store. She was told by the personnel officer that it was not because of the boycott. Her husband quit his job after being told that there could be no discussion of the boycott or his wife in the workplace. Parks, her husband, and her mother received threatening phone calls and death threats even after the boycott ended.