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Women in history

December 1st 1955: Rosa Parks’ act of resistance

75 years ago, on the 1st of December 1955, Rosa Parks took her regular bus back home from work in Montgomery. Alabama. She sat in the front row of the designated section for coloured passengers, in the rear part of the bus.  The bus continued its route and soon, the front part of the bus reserved to white passengers was full. Noticing this, the bus driver moved the “coloured section” sign back and asked the front row of black people seated to move back as well, to free up seats for the white passengers. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and move back. The bus driver threatened to have her arrested by the police. As Rosa Parks still refused, the bus driver called a police officer who arrested and took Rosa Parks away.


“I would have to know for once and for all what rights I had as a human being and a citizen.”

– Rosa Parks during a 1956 radio interview with Sydney Rogers in West Oakland

People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, 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.

– Rosa Parks in her autobiography My Story published in 1992


On December 1st, 1955, Rosa Parks was charged with violating the segregation law of the Montgomery code. Her refusal to give up her seat triggered the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott which started 4 days after Rosa Parks’ arrest.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott protested against the racial segregation in place in Montgomery’s transport. Since the 1900’s city ordinance segregating bus passengers by race, buses were divided by sections. Over time, bus drivers took upon themselves to require black passengers to move back if every seats of the white section were filled, and a white passenger had to stay up. The Boycott was one of the most important events of the civil rights movement in the US.

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Rosa Parks was a 42-year-old married woman at the time. She worked as a seamstress in a local department store and she was also the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a civil rights organisation.

Rosa Parks, her refusal to give up her seat for a white passenger and her arrest was used at the time to trigger action from activists all over the country. Over the years, her brave action has been told, retold and shared to the next generations, at school, in public spaces, in exhibits, on TV, by politicians… Those who have used her story one way or another, did so to educate about the civil rights movement. Her story and her name have been remembered by the collective memory, commemorated and honoured on several occasions ever since. To name only a few, a number of awards carry her name, as well as streets across the US but also in other countries such as France. A museum opened in 2000 in Montgomery dedicated to Rosa Parks and her defiance act. In our memories, Rosa Parks has truly become a face of resistance.  

Rosa Parks was one of the most important figures of the movement, often called the Mother of the Civil Rights movement. As a woman, she is one of the most well-known female historical figures. For instance, Rosa Parks is often listed in books introducing the most inspirational or exceptional women in history.  

It may be less known, but Rosa Parks was not the first one refusing to get up and give away her seat to a white passenger. Other black women before her had refused to leave their seat on a public transport. She was also not the first black woman arrested on a bus in 1955, in Montgomery, for simply refusing to surrender her seat to a white passenger.

Rosa Parks was chosen to be the face of resistance at the time of the civil rights movement. The next two articles on this Rosa Parks series will explore the memories around her act of defiance, firstly, through women who preceded her in their refusal to comply to segregation rules in transportation, and secondly, through the 1955 black women of Montgomery who played a significant role to have segregation in transport be declared unconstitutional and illegal by the U.S Supreme Court.

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