Rosa Parks in Montgomery Bus

“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…. When I declined to give up my seat, it was not that day or bus in particular. I just wanted to be free, like everybody else.” — Rosa Parks.

Yet, it was an unintentional protest. Around 6 p.m. on Thursday, December 1, 1955, in downtown Montgomery, Rosa Parks paid her fare and sat in an empty seat reserved for blacks. As white-only seats in the bus filled up, the bus driver demanded that she gave her seat up. When Parks refused to give up her seat, a police officer arrested her. Two hours after her arrest, the long-time NAACP activist was released on $100 bail. By midnight, a plan had been hatched for a citywide bus boycott, to which a young Baptist minister named Martin Luther King Jr. would later be elected to direct. The boycott lasted 381 days, until the Supreme Court ruled that segregation on buses was illegal. Although Parks was not the first black bus rider in Montgomery to refuse to give up her seat, but Parks’ case became the one the legal challenge was based upon, and it was the case’s success, rather than Parks herself, that ignited the modern civil rights movement.

On Dec. 21, 1956 — the day after the supreme court decision — United Press International staged a photo-op of Mrs. Parks sitting in front of a white man on a different bus. Similar photo opportunities were arranged for Martin Luther King Jr. and black leaders riding the newly integrated Cleveland Avenue bus, but the journalists and members of the civil rights community wanted an image that would dramatize what had occurred and asked reluctant Mrs. Parks to pose for the picture. Ironically, the picture UPI intended as showing the bus integration came to symbolize Park’s protest, which happened over a year before. (Other famous photos of Parks, a mug shot and a picture of her being fingerprinted, don’t date to Dec. 1, 1955, either. They were taken on Feb. 22, 1956, after about 100 black Montgomery residents were indicted on charges that they violated a local antiboycott statute.)

A UPI journalist Nicholas Chriss posed as the hard-eyed white man behind Parks.