African-Americans had wilfully violated the segregation of public transport before Rosa Parks, even in her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, where 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested nine months earlier for the same crime of refusing to give up her bus seat. Yet it was Parks’ now immortalised act of defiance that proved to be the spark that set the civil rights movement ablaze.
On 1 December 1955, Parks finished a tiring Thursday as a department store seamstress and boarded a bus to go home, taking a seat right behind the whites-only section. All the seats were soon taken, and so when a white man got on and stood in the aisle, bus driver James Blake instructed four black passengers, including the 42-year-old Parks, to move.
This was not her first run-in with Blake as, in 1943, he kicked her off his bus for entering through the front door rather than the back. The others got up; Parks remained seated. She wasn’t physically tired, as was claimed afterwards, but tired of giving in. Parks had been a passionate activist and member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for years already, and knew the consequences of her refusal to move. She was arrested.
Her story came to the attention of Edgar Nixon, head of the local NAACP chapter, and lawyer Fred Gray, who had been waiting for an opportune case to attack segregation in the courts. They considered Parks to be the ideal spokesperson and she agreed, at great personal cost. Parks lost her job, put her family in danger and received death threats for her commitment.
A one-day bus boycott was organised for the day of her trial, 5 December, but this was only the beginning. The resulting Montgomery Bus Boycott, lasting 381 days, successfully ended segregation on Alabama buses and signalled the next steps in the civil rights march: mass mobilisation, non-violence and the emergence of a charismatic leader, Martin Luther King.