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(CNN) -- An act of civil disobedience 55 years ago -- Rosa Parks' refusal to move to the back of a city bus -- made the seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, a pivotal symbol in America's civil rights movement.

Wednesday marks the 55th anniversary of the civil disobedience on December 1, 1955.

Parks did not intend to get arrested as she made her way home from work that day. Little did the 42-year-old seamstress know that her acts would help end segregation laws in the South.

That evening after work, Parks took a seat in the front of the black section of a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The bus filled up, and the bus driver demanded that she move so a white male passenger could have her seat.

But Parks refused to give up her seat, and police arrested her. Four days later, Parks was convicted of disorderly conduct.

The events triggered a 381-day boycott of the bus system by blacks that was organized by a 26-year-old Baptist minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The boycott led to a court ruling desegregating public transportation in Montgomery, but it wasn't until the 1964 Civil Rights Act that all public accommodations nationwide were desegregated.

Parks, who died five years ago in Detroit, Michigan, at 92, still has the power to inspire.

"I think that she, as the mother of the new civil rights movement, has left an impact not just on the nation, but on the world," U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, said shortly after her death. "She was a real apostle of the nonviolence movement."

He remembered her as someone who never raised her voice -- an eloquent voice of the civil rights movement.

"You treated her with deference because she was so quiet, so serene -- just a very special person," he said, adding that "there was only one" Rosa Parks.

Facing regular threats and having lost her department store job because of her activism, Parks left Alabama for Detroit in 1957, where she later joined Conyers' staff.

Parks later co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development to help young people pursue educational opportunities, get them registered to vote and work toward racial peace.

"As long as there is unemployment, war, crime and all things that go to the infliction of man's inhumanity to man, regardless -- there is much to be done, and people need to work together," she once said.

Parks remained active on the lecture circuit into her 80s, speaking at civil rights groups and accepting awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999.

"This medal is encouragement for all of us to continue until all have rights," she said at the June 1999 ceremony for the latter medal.

(cnn)


Most historians date the beginning of the modern civil rights movement in the United States to December 1, 1955. That was the day when an unknown seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. This brave woman, Rosa Parks, was arrested and fined for violating a city ordinance, but her lonely act of defiance began a movement that ended legal segregation in America, and made her an inspiration to freedom-loving people everywhere.
Rosa Parks was born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama to James McCauley, a carpenter, and Leona McCauley, a teacher. At the age of two she moved to her grandparents' farm in Pine Level, Alabama with her mother and younger brother, Sylvester. At the age of 11 she enrolled in the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, a private school founded by liberal-minded women from the northern United States. The school's philosophy of self-worth was consistent with Leona McCauley's advice to "take advantage of the opportunities, no matter how few they were."

Opportunities were few indeed. "Back then," Mrs. Parks recalled in an interview, "we didn't have any civil rights. It was just a matter of survival, of existing from one day to the next. I remember going to sleep as a girl hearing the Klan ride at night and hearing a lynching and being afraid the house would burn down." In the same interview, she cited her lifelong acquaintance with fear as the reason for her relative fearlessness in deciding to appeal her conviction during the bus boycott. "I didn't have any special fear," she said. "It was more of a relief to know that I wasn't alone."

After attending Alabama State Teachers College, the young Rosa settled in Montgomery, with her husband, Raymond Parks. The couple joined the local chapter of the NAACP and worked quietly for many years to improve the lot of African-Americans in the segregated south.

"I worked on numerous cases with the NAACP," Mrs. Parks recalled, "but we did not get the publicity. There were cases of flogging, peonage, murder, and rape. We didn't seem to have too many successes. It was more a matter of trying to challenge the powers that be, and to let it be known that we did not wish to continue being second-class citizens."

The bus incident led to the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association, led by the young pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The association called for a boycott of the city-owned bus company. The boycott lasted 382 days and brought Mrs. Parks, Dr. King, and their cause to the attention of the world. A Supreme Court Decision struck down the Montgomery ordinance under which Mrs. Parks had been fined, and outlawed racial segregation on public transportation.

In 1957, Mrs. Parks and her husband moved to Detroit, Michigan where Mrs. Parks served on the staff of U.S. Representative John Conyers. The Southern Christian Leadership Council established an annual Rosa Parks Freedom Award in her honor.

After the death of her husband in 1977, Mrs. Parks founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development. The Institute sponsors an annual summer program for teenagers called Pathways to Freedom. The young people tour the country in buses, under adult supervision, learning the history of their country and of the civil rights movement. President Clinton presented Rosa Parks with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996. She received a Congressional Gold Medal in 1999.

When asked if she was happy living in retirement, Rosa Parks replied, "I do the very best I can to look upon life with optimism and hope and looking forward to a better day, but I don't think there is any such thing as complete happiness. It pains me that there is still a lot of Klan activity and racism. I think when you say you're happy, you have everything that you need and everything that you want, and nothing more to wish for. I haven't reached that stage yet."

Mrs. Parks spent her last years living quietly in Detroit, where she died in 2005 at the age of 92. After her death, her casket was placed in the rotunda of the United States Capitol for two days, so the nation could pay its respects to the woman whose courage had changed the lives of so many. She is the only woman and second African American in American history to lie in state at the Capitol, an honor usually reserved for Presidents of the United States.





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