The long history of a bus ride

Rosa Parks led an inspiring life. Unfortunately, we rarely hear about it. That may sound surprising at a time when Rosa Parks, whose body lay in state in the Capitol on Sunday and Monday, is probably mentioned in every American history textbook and is the subject of dozens of biographies. The problem is that her story is usually presented as a simplistic morality tale that goes like this:

On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks is an ordinary 42-year-old seamstress in downtown Montgomery, Alabama. She leaves work and gets on the Cleveland Avenue bus to go home. When the whites-only section fills up, the bus driver yells at Parks to give up her seat to a white man. She refuses and is arrested. Simply by sitting on a bus, Parks sets off the year-long Montgomery bus boycott that galvanizes national attention, brings Martin Luther King Jr. to the start of his journey as a civil rights leader and creates a model of nonviolent protest against racial segregation.

There's no denying the appeal of this story. But this telling of the tale does a disservice to Parks and twists the history of the civil rights movement. Her story is about more than one bus ride. And the civil rights movement is more than one moment of defiance.

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