Sixty-five years ago today, a Black woman from Tuskegee, Alabama changed the course of American history.
Rosa Parks, then 42, was arrested on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama on Dec. 1, 1955, when she refused to give up her seat to a white man. Parks had willfully violated the city's segregation laws, and her actions inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott — a movement that thrust Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. onto the scene as a civil rights activist.
At the time, segregation laws in the Jim Crow south required all Black passengers to sit in a certain section in the back of city buses. The law also required that Black people give up their seats to white people should the buses fill up.
According to the History Channel, Parks was sitting in the first row of the Black section of a fully-loaded Montgomery city bus. When a white passenger boarded, he asked that Parks stand up and give him her seat. She refused and was promptly arrested.
According to History Channel, Parks' defiance was spontaneous — but she was also aware that local civil rights leaders had been planning to challenge segregation laws on public transportation.
Parks was quickly bailed out of jail by local civil rights leaders, and the NAACP and other Black leaders immediately called for a boycott of the city bus system. For 381 days — over a year — Black people in Montgomery chose to walk rather than ride the bus to oppose the city's racist laws.
The boycott placed financial pressure on the city and put the push to end segregation in the national spotlight.
It wasn't always easy — city leaders and vigilantes retaliated against the Black community in Montgomery — King's home was firebombed, peaceful protesters were arrested and many Black people in the city lost their jobs.
But at the same time, the King-led Montgomery Improvement Association filed a lawsuit in the hopes of challenging segregation on public transportation.
The following June, a federal court declared that segregation on public transportation was unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court upheld the ruling that December.
In addition to marking a win for Civil Rights across the country, the Montgomery Bus Boycott launched King onto the national scene. He would later push for further integration and help install voting rights legislation that helped Black people let their voices be heard.
But it was Parks' bravery to stand up against oppression that served as the spark that ignited a bonfire of change. She served as an inspiration for all Americans until her death in 2005 at the age of 92.