Sitting for justice

October 26, 2005

Often, a simple act sparks a mighty revolution. So it was with Rosa Parks, a black domestic worker and seamstress in Montgomery, Ala., whose refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated public bus in December 1955 helped ignite the civil rights movement that transformed America and inspired other struggles for justice around the world. Though sometimes described as the "mother of the modern civil rights movement," Mrs. Parks, who died this week at the age of 92, was not an architect of that movement, but became an important symbol of it - a reminder of the everyday indignities suffered by blacks as a result of Jim Crow.

Her protest was both spontaneous and deliberate. By 1955, she was secretary of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and had recently attended training sessions in Tennessee for civil rights workers. She refuted reports that she was particularly tired after a long day at work when she refused to give up her seat; she said, "The only tired I was, was tired of giving in." Her case became the public test not only of Montgomery's segregation rules but of the willingness of ordinary people to stand up for their fundamental rights.

Mrs. Parks' arrest prompted a 381-day boycott of city buses by more than 40,000 blacks in Montgomery who withstood hate calls, firebombings and police harassment rather than continue to use a system that relied on their patronage while denying their basic dignity. Blacks rode the buses again only after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the city's segregated transportation law unconstitutional. The boycott pushed one of its key organizers, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., into international prominence as a strategist for nonviolent protest. Hundreds of thousands were inspired to participate in the struggle as a result of Mrs. Parks' determined defiance.

She eventually left Montgomery and settled in Detroit, where she co-founded an institute that encourages young people to follow her example of "quiet strength," stay in school and excel. But it was for her simple act of courage that she received the nation's highest honors, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999 - along with its heartfelt gratitude.

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