December 1, 1955: Rosa Parks is arrested.
Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man and her subsequent arrest marked the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which eventually led to the federal ruling that declared bus segregation laws unconstitutional. At the time of her arrest Parks had been working as a seamstress, and she was also secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, although her arrest was not planned out beforehand as a move to challenge the state and city bus segregation laws. But even if her action had not been an official gesture of protest, her defiance of the law was the result of years and years of frustration with the injustice of the law and others like it. In her 1992 biography, Parks wrote:
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.
Martin Luther King, Jr. offered a similar explanation in his own book,Stride Toward Freedom:
No one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, ‘I can take it no longer.’
Parks had been sitting on a bus, on the way home from work. The bus’s white-reserved seats quickly filled up so that several white passengers were left standing, whereupon Parks and three other African-American riders were ordered by the bus driver to move toward the back of the bus, to the “colored” section. The other three obeyed; Parks did not. The bus driver then threatened to have her arrested, to which she replied simply, “You may do that”. The police eventually did come and arrest her, and she was charged with the violation of a Montgomery city segregation law (she was eventually fined $10 after a brief trial). Three days after Parks’ arrest, news of a planned boycott - the Montgomery Bus Boycott - spread through newspapers and black churches; meanwhile, Edgar Nixon and Martin Luther King, Jr. conferred on how to carry out their official challenge of Alabama’s segregation laws. In the end, they decided that Rosa Parks (who was described by King as “one of the finest citizens of Montgomery”) would serve as the plaintiff for a test cause against segregation laws.
After 381 days, the boycott ended. In one iconic image (pictured above), Rosa Parks is pictured riding on a bus of Montgomery’s newly-integrated transportation system. In 1996 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1999, the Congressional Gold Medal.