Few people in history can claim to have truly changed the world, and even fewer by one simple act. But Rosa Parks, who died this week at 92, did just that. On Dec. 1, 1955, she boarded a bus in Montgomery, Ala., and helped launch a revolution against bigotry and ignorance by refusing to yield her seat to a white man. She later said she was tired — not physically so much as weary of putting up with second-class citizenship in a nation founded on the principle that all men are created equal. Mrs. Parks’ defiance was one more nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, and the United States would never be the same.
It is almost unfathomable that barely 50 years ago it was illegal in many parts of the country for blacks to sit in the front of public buses, or eat at lunch counters or drink from the same water fountains as whites. Rosa Parks’ protest inspired thousands of others to engage in civil disobedience against such tyranny. Soon, blacks and whites, Christians and Jews, old and young were taking to the streets to march against injustice and demand that this nation live up to its ideals. But the modern civil rights movement began with the Montgomery bus boycott sparked by Rosa Parks.
The official penalty imposed on blacks for failing to give up their seats was a fine of $10, a substantial sum for those who could be, and were, paid less than whites — when they weren’t being denied jobs altogether. But blacks who defied the white power structure could face far worse penalties, even death. Just months before Mrs. Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus in Alabama, young Emmett Till was lynched by a mob of white men in Mississippi. The 14-year-old’s "crime" was allegedly whistling at a white girl outside a country store. An all white jury later acquitted the only two men ever prosecuted for Till’s killing, although one of the men later admitted to being part of the lynch mob in a shocking expose published by Look magazine.
The day that Rosa Parks went to court to be tried for violating Montgomery’s bus ordinance, 40,000 black Montgomery residents refused to ride the bus, sparking a boycott that lasted more than a year. The boycott, which established the reputation of a young black minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., only ended when the Supreme Court handed down a decision outlawing segregation on public buses.
It took another decade before Congress acted to make racial discrimination illegal, first with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which barred discrimination in public accommodations, employment and programs that receive federal funds. In 1965, Congress prohibited discrimination in voting, making it possible for blacks in many Southern states to vote for the first time. And in 1968, Congress outlawed discrimination in housing. But in many ways, it was Rosa Parks’ courage that set these events in motion.
Mrs. Parks did not remain in Alabama, moving north as so many blacks did in the ’50s and ’60s. She continued to work as a seamstress, later joining the Detroit office of Rep. John Conyers. In the 1990s, President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Congress bestowed its Congressional Gold Medal. She rarely sought the limelight and wore the mantle of fame reluctantly. In her later years, she even became the victim of a vicious crime by a 28-year-old black man who broke into her apartment, beat her badly and stole $53, having no idea who she was.
But for many people — black and white — Rosa Parks was a hero. Her quiet dignity and strength inspired others to stand up for what they knew was right. America is a better place for Rosa Parks. She will be missed by all who value freedom.