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Celebrating Rosa Parks: A civil rights icon for the ages

She has been called the first lady of civil rights.

Rosa Parks, who died 15 years ago on Oct. 24, 2005, is a global icon of the struggle against racial injustice, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the first woman to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.

After finishing her work as a seamstress on the evening of Dec. 1, 1955, Parks sat in the “colored” section in the middle of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, where she was required to sit under Jim Crow-era laws. But there was a movable line between the segregated sections, and when the white section filled up, the bus driver asked her to move.

Parks slid to the window seat in the same aisle, but from there she refused to budge until she was escorted off the bus by the police under arrest. Parks’ action inspired the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott, a seminal event in the civil rights movement.

Parks remained active in promoting civil rights for the rest of her life, including opposing apartheid in South Africa. When she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996, she was recognized for remaining “committed to the cause of freedom, speaking out against injustice here and abroad” and demonstrating “in the words of Robert Kennedy, that each time a person strikes out against injustice, she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope which, crossing millions of others, can sweep down the walls of oppression.”

When Parks died at the age of 92, the front seats of buses in Montgomery and Detroit (Parks’ hometown at the time of her death) were draped with black ribbons in her honor.

Lead photo by Associated Press/Paul Sancya

Rosa Parks rides a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on Dec. 21, 1956 – the day Montgomery's public transportation system was legally desegregated. A year earlier, on Dec. 1, 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat for white passengers, sparking a seminal moment in the civil rights movement that led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and a successful court challenge to the legality of segregated buses. Photo by Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo.

Rosa Parks is fingerprinted after being arrested a second time, in February 1956, for her involvement in the boycott of public transportation in Montgomery. Parks was taken into custody along with 73 others after a grand jury indicted 113 Black activists for organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But the prosecution would soon collapse. Photo by IanDagnall Computing/Alamy Stock Photo.


Rosa Parks is escorted by E.D. Nixon, head of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, as they enter the local courthouse on March 19, 1956, to stand trial for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There were 91 other defendants. Related cases, argued all the way to the Supreme Court, would find that local laws requiring segregation on city buses were unconstitutional. Photo by AP Photo/Gene Herrick.

Rosa Parks shakes hands with U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, D-N.Y., the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress. A lifelong supporter of progressive candidates, Parks served as secretary in the Detroit congressional office of U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., from 1965 until 1988. Photo by Library of Congress.

Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. present the Rosa Parks Outstanding Freedom Award to Rev. James Bevel and his wife, Diane Bevel, at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Birmingham, Alabama, on Aug. 13, 1965. King became a national civil rights leader following his support of the bus boycott inspired by Parks. Photo by Associated Press.

A lifelong activist for civil rights, Rosa Parks marches at the South African Embassy in Washington on Dec. 10, 1984, in protest of South Africa’s apartheid policies. U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland, D-Texas, is behind her. South Africa abolished apartheid in the early 1990s. Photo by Associated Press.

Rosa Parks with Julian Bond, the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, at the dedication of the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery in 1989. The circular black granite Memorial, commissioned by the SPLC, chronicles the history of the civil rights movement and records the names of its martyrs in lines that radiate like the hands of a clock. Photo by Thomas England.

Rosa Parks died in Detroit, her longtime home, on Oct. 24, 2005. She was memorialized by ceremonies in Detroit, Montgomery and Washington, D.C., where she was the first woman to lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol. This photo was taken at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, where Parks lay in repose until her burial the next day. Photo by Jeff Haynes/AFP via Getty Images.