Sign up for podcast updates and more!
In December 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks made history by standing up to unjust segregation laws in Montgomery, Alabama, when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man—a courageous act that helped launch the now-famous Montgomery bus boycott. In the years that followed, Parks was often characterized as a seamstress who was simply tired after a long day. However, Parks wasn’t tired from work—she was tired of being mistreated! While Parks is best known for that brave act of resistance, her activism spanned decades—and she continues to be a role model for rebel girls throughout the world today.
Anita Hill grew up on a farm in Oklahoma, the youngest of 13 children. She graduated from Oklahoma State University and received her J.D. from Yale Law School. Starting her career in Washington, D.C., Hill worked in private practice as well as at the Education Department and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 1989, Hill, was the first African American tenured at the University of Oklahoma, College of Law. Currently, she teaches courses on gender, race, policy and law at Brandeis University and serves as counsel to the law firm of Cohen, Milstein, Sellers and Toll, where she advises on class action discrimination cases.
|Once upon a time, there was a girl who, with quiet courage, challenged injustice and changed the world. Her name was Rosa.
Rosa was born in Alabama in 1913 and when she was young, she and her younger brother Sylvester walked to school every day. Big yellow school buses often rolled past, kicking up dust.
But the school buses weren’t for Rosa or Sylvester. Rosa and her brother were Black, and the buses were only for white kids. Sometimes the white kids shouted mean names at them. Other times, those kids even threw trash at them!
At that time in the South, there were laws that said Black people couldn’t go to the same schools as white people. They also couldn’t eat at the same restaurants, swim in public pools together, or even drink from the same water fountains!
Rosa thought this was unfair. She was just as good as anyone else. Why should she and her family be treated any differently?
One day, Rosa told herself, things would be different. She may not have known it then…but as a grown-up she would help start… a revolution.
|I’m Professor Anita Hill. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
On this episode, Rosa Parks. A champion of civil rights, courageous advocate and organizer, and a woman who refused to give up.
When Rosa was little, she lived with her mother and grandparents on a farm in Pine Level, Alabama. Rosa loved playing hide-and-seek with her brother and fishing in nearby ponds. She even liked helping with the chores!
But beyond the safety of the family farm, the world seemed really scary.
Many white people in Pine Level belonged to a group called the Ku Klux Klan, or KKK. The KKK wore white robes and hoods. They burned down Black churches, set fire to houses, and even hurt and killed Black people—just because they were Black.
Rosa’s grandfather had been enslaved, and he would not be intimidated by these white men. If the KKK rode past their home, he would sit on the front porch with a shotgun. Rosa often sat beside him.
Rosa was afraid, of course. But like her grandfather, she would not let fear stop her from standing up for herself.
As Rosa grew, and went to school she decided she wanted to be a nurse or a social worker. But achieving that dream in Pine Level was difficult. In Alabama, public school for Black kids stopped at sixth grade. So, when Rosa was 11, her mother sent her to live with relatives in Montgomery, Alabama to go to a special school where she could keep on learning. And the more Rosa learned, the more she saw her dreams coming into focus.
But there were people out there who wanted to crush those dreams.
First, white people set fire to Rosa’s school—twice. They didn’t think Black girls should be educated. And in 1928, when she was 15, the school was forced to close.
A year or so later Rosa had to leave school altogether to help her family back in Pine Level.
Rosa’s dreams of finishing high school and college vanished.
After moving home, Rosa got a job cleaning houses, and then one day, when she was 18 years old, a friend introduced her to a young man named Raymond.
Raymond loved to read and had a lot of big ideas about justice and equality. And he often worked with his fellow Black community members to advocate for change.
Rosa thought he was very smart and brave. In 1932 they got married and moved back to Montgomery.
Raymond encouraged Rosa to go back to school, and in 1934, she graduated with a high school diploma.
Rosa was proud of her accomplishments, but job opportunities for Black women were still very limited. So, she worked as a nurse’s assistant, a secretary, and, later, a seamstress.
|ACTIVIST IN THE MAKING
Rosa had often watched Raymond working to bring fairness to Black communities. Sometimes, she feared for Raymond’s life. But despite these dangers, Rosa decided she wanted to help, too.
In 1943, Rosa joined the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP.
When she walked into her first meeting, Rosa was the only woman. And because most secretaries at that time were women, they asked her to take notes!
That day, Rosa was elected chapter secretary—a role she held for 12 years!
In her new position, Rosa shared news about hate crimes committed against Black people. She helped women who had been the victims of violence. And she helped Black people register – or sign up – to vote.
Soon, she was leading a youth council for the NAACP in Montgomery and later went to Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. This was a special school for adults to learn about social justice and community organizing.
There, white people and Black people roomed together, cooked together, ate together, and did chores together—acts that were forbidden across the South.
At the end of Rosa’s training, the teachers encouraged students to share what changes they could make in their own communities.
When it was Rosa’s turn, she sighed. She told the group she didn’t think much could change in Montgomery. But Rosa promised to keep working with young people. They were their best hope for change, she said.
A few months later, on December 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks boarded her bus as usual after work.
In Montgomery, buses were segregated. White people sat in the front, and Black people sat in the back. The middle of the bus was a neutral zone—but each row had to be all Black or all white.
Rosa sat in the bus’s neutral zone in a row with three other Black passengers. She was thinking about the workshop she would be holding for youth activists that weekend, and about dinner that night: Raymond was cooking a pot roast. Her tastebuds tingled just thinking about it.
Suddenly, she heard a gruff voice from the front of the bus.
“Move y’all,” the white bus driver said. “I want those two seats.”
The other passengers on Rosa’s row stood and moved to the back of the bus.
But Rosa didn’t budge. She thought of her grandfather on the porch with his rifle. She thought of Claudette Colvin, too—a teenager from her youth council who had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus just a few months before!
Rosa was tired. She was tired of stepping off the sidewalk for white people and drinking from different water fountains.
She was tired of being mistreated. Tired of giving in.
Soon, the driver’s reddened face hovered near Rosa’s.
“Are you going to stand up?” he said angrily.
“No,” Rosa said with a quiet calm.
Rosa was scared, but she imagined her ancestors surrounding her—and all those who had stood up for the rights of Black people before.
“Well, I’m going to have you arrested,” the driver said.
“You may do that,” Rosa answered.
Soon, the red-and-blue lights of a police car flashed through the bus’s windows. Policemen escorted her off the bus and put her in jail.
Mrs. Parks’ friends from the NAACP posted her bail. As soon as they got her home and knew she was safe, they started making plans. Maybe they could use her court case to challenge these segregation laws!
Rosa and her family were hesitant at first but they knew this was important. And, her fellow leaders at the NAACP had been looking for a court case to challenge Montgomery’s discriminatory bus laws.
So, even though she was afraid, Rosa agreed.
|THE BOYCOTT CONTINUES
Just a few days after Mrs. Parks’ arrest…something else happened.
A group of women, led by Jo Ann Robinson, the head of a Black women’s organization in Montgomery, had gotten together to call for a boycott of Montgomery’s bus system. They plastered the city with flyers!
Mrs. Parks was not the first Black person in Montgomery to refuse to give up her seat on a bus. That year alone, at least two other women had gone to jail for it.
But there was something different this time.
Black residents of Montgomery respected her, and they were fed up too.
On Monday, December 5, Black people of all ages could be found walking Montgomery’s streets. Empty buses rumbled by. People chanted after them:“No riders today!”
That night, thousands of Black community members gathered at the church of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a new minister in town. There, they made a decision: The boycott would continue until Black people were treated as equals on the bus.
People with cars organized carpools and gave free rides. Soon, communities around the country heard about the boycott. They sent shoes and money to help the cause.
But the boycott made a lot of white people mad. Rosa and her family received death threats. Doctor King’s house was bombed. Black community members’ cars were vandalized.
On top of that, Rosa and Raymond both lost their jobs.
It was dangerous work. It was hard on their souls.
But they refused to give up.
The bus boycott lasted for more than one year. Eventually, the Supreme Court—the highest court in the United States—ruled that segregation on Montgomery’s buses was illegal.
On December 21, 1956, buses in Montgomery were officially desegregated.
Black residents streamed onto the buses—and sat wherever they wanted!
Reporters followed Mrs. Parks as she boarded her first bus after the boycott ended. To her surprise, the bus driver was the same one who had had her arrested before!
But she just went ahead and took her place in the front seat, and as the bus pulled away from the curb, she looked out the window, watching the streets of Montgomery slowly roll by.
|THE WORK CONTINUES
The Montgomery bus boycott inspired protests and acts of resistance across the country and supercharged the civil rights movement in the United States. Some people even called Mrs. Parks the “mother of the civil rights movement”!
Rosa was overjoyed, but their victory had a cost.
Rosa and Raymond still couldn’t find jobs, and they suffered health problems from all the stress. And even though the boycott was over the threatening letters and calls didn’t stop.
Eventually, they decided to leave Montgomery, and in 1957, they moved to Detroit, Michigan.
In Detroit, Mrs. Parks kept protesting, speaking out against injustice, and working for equal rights, especially for people of color and for women.
Eventually, in 1965, she got a job with John Conyers, a Black U.S. Congressman from Michigan worked there for more than 20 years.
As the years went on, Rosa received awards and honors from around the globe. In 1996, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And in 1999, she received the Congressional Gold Medal—the highest honor given by the U.S. legislature.
When Rosa died in 2005 at age 92, her coffin was brought to the U.S. Capitol Building so people could pay their respects. She was the first woman, and second Black person, ever to receive such an honor!
Throughout her life, Mrs. Rosa Parks faced many challenges, but in the face of fear and danger, she always stood up for what was right. Even if it meant staying in her seat.
Someday, when you see someone treated unfairly, you can think of Mrs. Parks. Imagine her right beside you. See her courage and strength surrounding you and flowing through you. Listen to her saying, “You must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right.”
And filled with her courage, perhaps you can be brave enough to stand up—or sit down—too.