It was a moment that changed history. It began on a Montgomery, Alabama bus when 42-year-old Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man as the laws at the time required. Parks died Monday at age 92.
“Are you going to stand up?” the bus driver asked.
“No,” Parks answered.
“Well, by God, I’m going to have you arrested,” the driver said.
“You may do that,” Parks responded.
She took a stand by refusing to get up, and in doing so, became the mother of the civil rights movement fifty years ago this December. Parks worked as a seamstress and was an active member of the NAACP at the time. Two other black Montgomery women had been arrested earlier the same year on the same charge, but Parks was jailed.
In 1992, she disputed an urban myth that tried to justify her defiance to the Jim Crow law as being caused by aching feet that made her not feel like rising:
“But the real reason of my not standing up was I felt that I had a right to be treated as any other passenger. We had endured that kind of treatment for too long.”
Still, it would take another nine years before President Lyndon Johnson would sign the Civil Rights Act, which banned racial discrimination in public accomodations.
But in a world where some young people are quick to join in protests when they barely know what they’re protesting, turning the event into an excuse for attention or an excuse to destroy other people’s property, Parks’ legacy is one of protesting an unfair law without violence, without a desire for fame and with a grace and dignity that led to real change.
There is still plenty of work to be done in the struggle for equality, to be sure. But one must wonder where things might stand today had it not been for that December day in 1955.
For more details on Parks’ life, visit the story from the Associated Press.