Rosa Parks (1913–2005) is often celebrated for her refusal to give up her seat on the bus to a white man on December 1, 1955. But the decision she made after her arrest—while not as well known—was equally courageous.
Seen through the eyes of her husband, Raymond Parks, Rosa was in grave danger every minute she remained in jail. Raymond was therefore elated when Rosa was released on bond thanks to the intervention of the president of the Montgomery branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a white lawyer for whom Parks had worked.
That could have been the end of the trauma for the Parks family. But for some time the NAACP had been looking for a test case to challenge the city’s segregation ordinance. Other black women before Rosa Parks had been arrested for refusing to give up their seat on a Montgomery bus, but the NAACP judged that they could not withstand the relentless scrutiny to which such a public case would subject them.
Mrs. Rosa Parks gave them the perfect test case: “middle-aged, religious, of good character, known and respected in the community for her political work, and brave,” as her biographer Jeanne Theoharis writes in The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (2013).
Still, Mrs. Parks had to agree to undertake what promised to be an ordeal. Her husband tried to dissuade her. “The white folks will kill you, Rosa,” he warned her. Fully aware of the dangers ahead, she nevertheless decided that if it could “mean something to Montgomery and do some good, I’ll be happy to go along with it.”
That deliberate decision, as much as her earlier refusal to give up her seat on the bus, helped launch the Montgomery bus boycott and bring an end to legal segregation in the South.