Everyone knows what happened after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery Alabama bus in December of 1955, but what is less well known is the real reason why, and what lead up to that decisive moment.
Twelve years prior to the bus boycott, in 1943, Rosa Parks became active in the civil right movement as a member of the local NAACP chapter and secretary to the president of the organization. In this same year, Rosa experienced her first confrontation with a bus driver when she was told to exit the front of the bus in the rain and re-enter through the back of the bus. As she was doing so, she dropped her purse and sat for a minute to pick it up. This so enraged the bus driver that he drove off and left her standing in the rain outside of the bus. Rosa knew this treatment was unfair, but felt there was little she could do.
In 1944 Rosa experienced her first taste of equality when working at Maxwell Air Force Base because the base was federal property and secretion was not permitted. After leaving the base, Rosa took a job working for a couple who sponsored her attendance at Highlander Folk School, a place where she was further educated about racial equality and the rights of workers. Her confidence grew.
In 1955, after coming back to Montgomery, she took a job at a local department store as a seamstress. On her way back from work on day she sat down in the first row of middle section of the bus, behind the section reserved for whites. By a strange coincidence, the same bus driver who had thrown her off 13 years ago was driving the bus that day. When all of the seats reserved for whites filled up, he moved the sign back and demanded that Rosa and three others give up their seats. Rosa refused.
Rosa shared the real motivation behind her decision in her biography:
"People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, 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. I knew someone had to take the first step and I made up my mind not to move. Our mistreatment was just not right, and I was tired of it."
Rosa parks was not an accidental activist, she was an intention activist. She made a conscious decision to take a stand. Subsequently, Jo Ann Robinson, organizer and member of the Women's Political Council stayed up all night mimeographing over 35,000 copies of a flyer announcing a boycott of the buses. This group was the first to officially endorse and advertise the boycott. They started the work that spread through churches and newspapers to coordinate 40,000 people in only 2 days.
While the bus boycott would last 381 days before Alabama's segregation laws would be ruled unconstitutional, Rosa's steadfast commitment to the cause through difficult times inspired the movement.
What happens when one woman stands up for the rights of many? What happens when women come together and organize around a cause? Rosa's story is a reminder of the power of one woman's voice, and the amplified power of a community of women coming together.
"Parks Recalls Bus Boycott, Excerpts from an interview with Lynn Neary", National Public Radio, 1992, linked at Civil Rights Icon Rosa Parks Dies, NPR, October 25, 2005. Retrieved July 4, 2008.