Sometimes it is only when you can suffer injustice no longer that you find the strength to change the world.
On December 1, 1955, 42-year-old Rosa Parks boarded a city bus in downtown Montgomery, Alabama. She took an empty seat and settled in for the long journey home.
What happened next kicked off a revolution.
Alabama was a “Jim Crow” state. This meant that black people and white people were segregated: blacks were forced to drink from their own water fountains and sit apart from whites at restaurants and theaters. They were forbidden from most hotels and were made to ride at the back of busses, in the "colored" section.
While “Jim Crow” laws promised that whites and blacks were “separate but equal,” black people were regularly demeaned with second-class service. The Ku Klux Klan terrorized black families who resisted this legally enforced racist system. Black men who stood up for their rights put themselves in danger of being lynched. Lynchings were common.
Rosa Parks was not, as some whites later believed, just a tired old woman. Rosa was a fighter. She had been the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization dedicated to resisting segregation. In 1944, Rosa organized a committee to investigate the kidnapping and rape of a young black woman named Recy Taylor by a gang of white men. At great peril to herself, Rosa managed to get the white men arrested, only to watch as an all-white jury acquitted them of their crime. Afterwards, Rosa grew even more determined to fight "Jim Crow" segregation and racism.
On November 27, 1955, two more white men were acquitted by an all-white jury: they had tortured and brutally murdered the black teenager Emmett Till for flirting with a white woman. The assailants were the woman’s husband and her brother. They made Emmett carry a 75-pound cotton-gin fan to the bank of the Tallahatchie River, then ordered him to strip off his clothes. The two men then beat the naked boy nearly to death, gouged out his eye, shot him in the head, and then threw his body, tied to the cotton-gin fan with barbed wire, into the river. When Rosa found out that these two would now walk free, something broke within her. She could no longer accept a society that treated blacks as less than people.
Four days later, Rosa took her seat on the middle of a Montgomery bus. Some white passengers boarded, and the white driver demanded that the black people in Rosa’s row move back to make room. When the others moved, Rosa stayed. “I don't think I should have to stand up,” she told the driver. When he told her that she would be arrested, she simply responded “you may do that.”
Rosa was not the first black person in Montgomery to refuse to give up their seat on the bus, or to resist the daily humiliations of segregation. But in December of 1955, something had shifted. When the black community saw the image of the innocent Rosa Parks being finger-printed, they decided that the moment had come for a final reckoning with Jim Crow.
From December 5, 1955, the black people of Montgomery stopped riding the city busses. Instead, they walked in all weather, carpooled, or hitchhiked. A 26-year-old Montgomery pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr. called for the black community to boycott the bus system until blacks and whites were allowed to sit together. White gangs and policemen harassed and spit on the boycotters, and even firebombed King’s house. But the busses remained empty. After 381 days -- that's just over a year -- the city of Montgomery finally relented and passed an ordinance ending segregation on public transportation.
On December 21, 1956, Rosa Parks boarded the first legally integrated bus in Montgomery. The Civil Rights movement had begun.
Despite the victory, Rosa Parks lost her job as a seamstress as punishment for the boycott. In 1957, she was forced to leave Montgomery to find work and escape the constant stream of death threats against her. Living in Detroit in the 1960s, Rosa continued to speak up, this time about housing discrimination against black people. She also befriended Malcolm X, whom she considered her personal hero. Rosa lived humbly in Detroit for the next forty years, donating her occasional speaking fees on Civil Rights to a scholarship fund for Detroit high schoolers.
Rosa passed away peacefully at the age of 92 in 2005. She was destitute, kept just a hair away from homelessness by the grace of neighbors and friends. "She is my personal #HistoryHero," says Time Traveler Tours & Tales' founder, Sarah Towle. "She always has been. I imagine her courage in the face of the certain violence that was a part of her daily existence in Jim Crow Alabama. And I wonder if, in her shoes, I would have had the fortitude to stand my ground the way she did." That's why Rosa is a TTT&T #HistoryHero. She did what was right, despite the odds, fully prepared to live with the consequences. She was brave to the end.
Who's your #HistoryHero?
Message us (above) or tell us in the comments (below) and we'll let you know when we feature him or her on the #HistoryHero BLAST.