She was a seamstress riding a bus home from a hard day's work. But that memorable journey propelled her straight into history.
The quiet, unassuming woman who was "tired of giving in" became the fuse that ignited the massive Montgomery bus boycott and made Rosa Parks into "The Mother of the Modern Day Civil Rights Movement."
"She started the modern day civil rights movement," said Kory Ward at the Rosa Parks Library and Museum. "She became one of many ordinary people cast by events into extraordinary circumstances."
The story of Parks and the civil rights movement is told at the Rosa Parks Library and Museum in the city where it happened, Montgomery, Ala. Opened on Dec. 1, 2000 — 45 years after Parks' historic bus ride, the museum is located on the corner where Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man.
"People used to come to this spot, but all they could see was a historical marker and an abandoned building," Ward said. "They now can see a state-of-the-art interactive museum to help them better understand what happened here."
Museum takes visitors back in time
Inside the museum, visitors can see and feel a little of what segregated Montgomery was like more than 50 years ago. An exhibit at the museum is a bus that was used in Montgomery at the time of Parks' arrest.
Visitors can look in the bus windows and watch a video that recreates the famous conversation between Parks and the bus driver. The 42-year-old woman was on her way home from work at a downtown department store. Bespectacled, her hair pulled tightly in back, Parks didn't look like someone wanting to cause trouble.
But when trouble came her way, Parks didn't flinch. Boarding the bus on that chilly December day, she sank down wearily in the first row of the black section of the public bus. A widely-held myth says Parks sat in the front of the bus, behind the driver. In truth, she took her seat in the first row of the black section.
At the next bus stop at the old Empire Theatre, a crowd of people got on the bus, too many riders for the seats available. It was "expected" black passengers would know their place and get up to give their seats to white riders. They didn't. So, the driver walked back to the "black section" to move Parks and three other black passengers so white riders could sit.
At first, all four didn't budge. Then, after warnings from the driver, three stood and moved. Only Parks remained. It's chilling to hear the sparse conversation that sparked the furor. "Are you going to stand up?" the driver asks.
"No," Parks replies.
"Well, by God, I'm going to have you arrested," the driver said.
"You may go on and do so," Parks responded.
She was arrested, fingerprinted and put behind bars. But that was the beginning of the end of Jim Crow.
Martin Luther King Jr. helps organize bus boycott
Parks' quiet courage helped bring to the forefront a young Montgomery preacher, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who would go on to galvanize the nation. And the boycott of the busy bus system in the days that followed her arrest showed how nonviolence could be effective against oppression.
The boycott began Dec. 5, 1955, and lasted 381 days until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down segregation laws. "People thought the boycott would last a week," Ward said. "It lasted 13 months, and the bus companies almost went bankrupt. All areas of life were impacted by the boycott."
Large station wagons transported boycotters to and from work. Many blacks chose to walk, even in the cold temperatures. White people joined in to offer their services and their vehicles to keep the boycott going.
The lives of Parks and her husband, Raymond, also were affected in ways they never expected. "I felt the Lord would give me the strength to endure whatever I had to face," Parks wrote in her 1994 memoir "Quiet Strength."
But life in Montgomery became difficult for Parks and her husband. Parks received death threats. She and her husband lost their jobs and couldn't find other employment. Her husband had a nervous breakdown. Finally, they moved to Detroit.
Raymond Parks died in 1977 in Detroit. Rosa Parks died Oct. 24, 2005, in her Detroit apartment. She was 92. Rosa and Raymond Parks had no children.
Through interviews, photographs and words spoken by people who were there in the 1950s and 1960s, museum visitors hear what it was like back then. One of the more compelling exhibits is a hand-crafted model of King sitting in a replica of his kitchen, praying for guidance in the days ahead.
"The exhibit is about 'The Epiphany' — midnight at his kitchen table when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was questioning whether he should endanger his young family by continuing the civil rights movements," Ward said. "He heard the voice of Jesus telling him to fight on."
While standing on the balcony of his Memphis motel room on the evening of April 4, 1968, King was shot and killed. He was 39 years old.