Few people in history can claim to have truly changed the world, and even fewer by one simple act. But Rosa Parks, who died this week at 92, did just that. On Dec. 1, 1955, she boarded a bus in Montgomery, Ala., and helped launch a revolution against bigotry and ignorance by refusing to yield her seat to a white man. She later said she was tired -- not physically so much as weary of putting up with second-class citizenship in a nation founded on the principle that all men are created equal. Mrs. Parks' defiance was one more nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, and the United States would never be the same.
It is almost unfathomable that barely 50 years ago it was illegal in many parts of the country for blacks to sit in the front of public buses, or eat at lunch counters or drink from the same water fountains as whites. Rosa Parks' protest inspired thousands of others to engage in civil disobedience against such tyranny. Soon, blacks and whites, Christians and Jews, old and young were taking to the streets to march against injustice and demand that this nation live up to its ideals. But the modern civil rights movement began with the Montgomery bus boycott sparked by Rosa Parks.
The official penalty imposed on blacks for failing to give up their seats was a fine of $10, a substantial sum for those who could be, and were, paid less than whites -- when they weren't being denied jobs altogether. But blacks who defied the white power structure could face far worse penalties, even death. Just months before Mrs. Parks' refusal to move to the back of the bus in Alabama, young Emmett Till was lynched by a mob of white men in Mississippi. The 14-year-old's "crime" was allegedly whistling at a white girl outside a country store. An all white jury later acquitted the only two men ever prosecuted for Till's killing, although one of the men later admitted to being part of the lynch mob in a shocking expose published by Look magazine.
The day that Rosa Parks went to court to be tried for violating Montgomery's bus ordinance, 40,000 black Montgomery residents refused to ride the bus, sparking a boycott that lasted more than a year. The boycott, which established the reputation of a young black minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., only ended when the Supreme Court handed down a decision outlawing segregation on public buses.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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