You probably already know that February is African-American History Month. If you're in school, maybe you've put things on bulletin boards, or started a new chapter of your social studies book. And maybe you think you already know all about Rosa Parks.
Remember her? She lived in Alabama and sewed clothes for a living. One day, nearly 50 years ago, she was going home on the bus. A white man wanted her seat. But Mrs. Parks was tired. Her feet hurt. She stayed where she was. The police came, and she was arrested. She didn't mean to start a protest - the Montgomery bus boycott - that would help to change America, but she did. Right? Right?
Wrong. That story is wrong - not all wrong, but it's not half as interesting as what really happened. Read on...
Rosa Parks grew up in Alabama. When she was young, people thought a lot about who was "white" and who was "colored." "White" referred to people whose ancestors all came to America from Europe. "Colored" meant people with at least one ancestor from Africa.
When Mrs. Parks was young, she couldn't use the same drinking fountain as white kids did. She couldn't go to school with them, either. There were laws against those things where she lived.
After high school, Parks got a job in Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, as a seamstress in a big department store. In her free time, she was the secretary for the local branch of a national political group called the NAACP - the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It was (and is) a group working to ensure equal educational, social, and economic opportunities for all Americans.
Parks rides the bus:
Every day, Parks rode the bus to work in the morning and home at night. There was a law that on the bus, white people sat in front and black people sat in back.
If the front part of the bus was full and more white passengers got on, black passengers had to give up their seats and stand.
Parks saw this happen every day. Other people in the NAACP saw it, too. They wanted to challenge the law in court so they could prove that it was wrong. But first they needed a person brave enough to defy the unfair law.
One day, a 15-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin did. She stayed in her seat when a white passenger wanted to sit down. She stayed when the driver yelled at her. She struggled with police who came to arrest her.
The NAACP heard of the arrest. E.D. Nixon did, too. He had been the president of Montgomery's NAACP when Parks began working there.
Mr. Nixon and the NAACP leaders were excited. Maybe Claudette's trial would be their chance to prove that the law was wrong.
But when they talked to Claudette, they knew it wouldn't work. She was about to have a baby, and she wasn't married to the baby's father. The NAACP was afraid that, at Claudette's trial, people might want to talk about her not being married, and not about the unfair law.
Rosa Parks knew all this. She knew the right person to test the law hadn't come along yet.
Parks takes a seat
On the evening of Dec. 1, 1955, Parks got on the bus to go home. She recognized the driver right away. He had cheated her years before, by taking her bus fare then refusing to let her in the front door of the bus. He told her to get on through the back door and then drove away without her.
This time, Parks got on the bus and sat down in the last empty seat in the row closest to the white section. Three other black people were already sitting in that row.
As the bus drove across town, it started to fill up. After a while, the white section was full. Then one more white man got on the bus.
The bus driver demanded that all four people in Rosa's row stand up to let the white man sit in the row alone. At first, nobody moved. The driver threatened them. One by one, they stood up and walked farther back in the bus. Parks did not. She stayed right where she was.
You know the rest. Parks didn't argue, but she didn't move. Not when the driver threatened her. Not until the police came to arrest her.
The news of her arrest traveled fast. The NAACP's leaders heard. They knew Parks. They knew that, at her trial, nobody could say anything bad about her. It was time to get ready to go to court.
'Next time, it may be you'
Nixon and the NAACP were not the only ones preparing for a chance to show that the bus law was wrong. Another group in Montgomery, the Women's Political Council (WPC), had also been waiting.
Jo Ann Robinson was president of the WPC, and very angry about the bus law. She had met with the mayor and other Montgomery city officials to protest the unfair laws, but not much had changed.
Ms. Robinson and the WPC thought that a boycott was needed. (A boycott is when people make a point by refusing to do something.)
Parks was arrested on Thursday. Robinson stayed up all that night printing fliers. The fliers told about the arrest and asked people to help.
The fliers called for all black people not to ride the buses on Monday. "If we do not do something about these arrests, they will continue," the fliers read. "The next time it may be you, or your daughter, or your mother."
The next morning, WPC members and others spread the fliers all over town. They took them to black schools, so students could take them home to their parents.
Robinson knew that many more black people than white people rode Montgomery's buses. If no black people rode the buses for a day, the bus companies would lose money. If they lost money, maybe the companies' white owners would get the message: People won't follow an unfair law forever.
On Monday, Rosa Parks went to court and was fined $14 for breaking the bus law. She never paid it.
The first day of the boycott was a great success. On Monday night, boycotters gathered at a church overflowing with people. A young minister named Martin Luther King Jr., told the crowd: "The great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right."
The boycott took a long time, but people walked or carpooled to work and school for more than a year. Finally, the United States Supreme Court decided that it was illegal to treat people differently on the bus because of their skin color.
For more information:
I Am Rosa Parks By Rosa Parks (Dial Books, 1997) An easy-to-read picture book.
Rosa Parks: My Story By Rosa Parks (Dial Books, 1991) A chapter book for older children.
Eyes on the Prize By Juan Williams, (Viking/Penguin, 1986) Companion book for the PBS-TV series on the history of the civil rights movement in the United States.
Bearing the Cross By David J. Garrow, (William Morrow, 1986) Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement By Aldon D. Morris, (The Free Press, 1984) More history for grownups.
Time People of the Century website
Timeline of the Montgomery bus boycott
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society