Fifty-seven years ago today, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. When local activists learned about her arrest, they organized a city-wide boycott and filed a lawsuit, kicking an emerging civil rights movement into a higher gear.
Mrs. Parks’s non-cooperation was courageous, but it wasn’t an isolated act. She had been an activist for most of her life, and was chapter secretary of the local NAACP. She had taken a summer course at the Highlander Institute, where she read about civil disobedience, the Constitution, and the Brown versus Board of Education decision.
She also wasn’t the first person to defy segregation laws on the city buses; earlier that year, Claudette Colvin (at right), then fifteen, was arrested for the same offense, but local activists were reluctant to organize around her. She was young, less experienced, pregnant, and not married. Image matters.
The Montgomery bus boycott spurred similar efforts around the United States and brought global attention to the civil rights movement. It also introduced Martin Luther King, then a young minister, to national visibility.
Mrs. Parks herself became an icon of the movement–and indeed, in American history. When I ask my students to list heroes of the American civil rights movement, she is second only to Martin Luther King in mentions. Often, students know no other names from the movement.
Twenty-five years after her arrest, Mrs. Parks’s celebrity brought her an appearance on a game show, To Tell the Truth. In the video below, you can watch celebrities question her–and two impostors–about the bus boycott. It’s bizarre and compelling. The last questioner is comedian Nipsey Russell, who uses his brief turn to shout out to other important, courageous, and now lesser-known heroes of the movement.