Most of us know Rosa Parks as the African American woman who quietly but firmly refused to give up her bus seat to a white person on Dec. 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama. That small act of resistance sparked the yearlong Montgomery Bus Boycott which, in turn, kickstarted national efforts to end racial segregation in the U.S.
But Rosa Parks is much more than that. "Most Americans are only familiar with the event that occurred on Dec. 1, 1955," says David Canton, associate professor of history and director of the Africana Studies Program at Connecticut College. "However, Rosa Parks was an activist years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott and years after."
Here are four facts and four myths about Parks that will help you better understand this important historical figure.
Fact: Parks Came From a Family of Activists
Parks was born in 1913 to James and Leona McCauley. The couple separated two years later, and Parks' mother moved the family to her parents' farm in Pine Level, Alabama. Parks' grandparents, Rose and Sylvester Edwards, were former slaves who strongly believed in racial equality. One of Parks' early memories was of her grandfather standing guard with his shotgun as the Ku Klux Klan marched down their street. In 1932, when she was 19, Rosa McCauley married Raymond Parks, an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Myth: Her Only Activism Was Refusing to Give up her Bus Seat
Parks began her civil rights activism shortly after graduating from high school, and continued until shortly before her death in 2005 at age 92. She served for years as secretary to the president of the NAACP's Montgomery chapter. Parks also worked on issues such as voter registration, desegregation of schools and public spaces, and justice for black victims of white brutality. In addition, she participated in numerous major civil rights events such as the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March. Parks was also an activist for women's rights and ending the Vietnam War. At one time she served on the board of Planned Parenthood.
Fact: She'd Previously Had a Run-in With the Same Bus Driver
Twelve years before Parks refused to give up her bus seat, she boarded a bus driven by James E. Blake. Blake often made derogatory remarks to African Americans, especially women. He also made blacks get off his bus after paying, then re-board in the rear. Sometimes, he'd drive away before they got back on. When Parks boarded Blake's bus in 1943, he tried to make Parks re-board after paying. She refused, and he tried to push her off the bus. After that, Parks avoided Blake's bus no matter what. But on the fateful day, she didn't notice Blake was the driver when she stepped on board.
Myth: On Dec. 1, 1955, She Sat in the Whites-only Section
In 1955, Montgomery's buses had 36 seats. The first 10 were for whites, the middle 16 were first-come, first-serve (with priority given to whites) and the last 10 were for blacks. Parks sat down in the first row of the middle section, next to a black man. Two black women sat across the aisle. The other blacks got up when Blake told them to. Parks, of course, did not.
Fact: Parks Wasn't the First African American in Montgomery to Refuse to Give Up Her Bus Seat
Several months before Parks refused to give up her seat, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin did the same thing. But unlike Parks, Colvin made a scene and was physically removed by police officers. Some say Parks' refusal ignited the boycott, and not Colvin's, because Parks was calm, polite and an older woman, which made her a more sympathetic figure. However, it was Colvin, not Parks, who was part of the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of bus segregation in Montgomery.
Myth: She Remained Seated Because She Was Tired
Parks did not refuse to give up her bus seat because her feet hurt. "I was not tired physically," she wrote in her autobiography, "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."
Fact: Parks Was Jailed a Second Time, Two Months Later
With the Montgomery Bus Boycott going strong, Parks was helping arrange carpool rides to people who refused to ride the buses. But on Feb. 21, 1956, a grand jury indicted Parks and others for violating an Alabama law prohibiting organized boycotts. Once again, Parks was arrested and jailed. The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted 381 days and ended when the Supreme Court said segregation on public transportation was unconstitutional.
Myth: Once the Boycott Was Over, Americans Embraced Parks
Although the boycott was a success, it threw Rosa and Raymond Parks' life into turmoil. Montgomery Fair department store, where Parks worked as a seamstress, fired her. Raymond was also fired from his job after his boss said he couldn't talk about Rosa or the boycott at work. The couple, who had received threatening phone calls, death threats and hate mail during the boycott, continued to receive them for years after. In 1957, after neither could find steady employment in Montgomery, they joined Rosa's brother and cousins in Detroit, taking along her mother, Leona.
"White supremacists forced Rosa Parks to leave Alabama and relocate to Detroit," says Canton. But even in Detroit, Parks had trouble finding work. Finally, in 1965, she was hired as an administrative assistant for Congressman John Conyers, Jr., a position she held until her 1985 retirement. Parks died in 2005 and her body lay in honor at the U.S. Capitol rotunda, the first woman to receive that distinction.