Rosa Parks was hardly gunning for a fight on Dec. 1, 1955, as she rushed home from her seamstress job at a department store in Montgomery, Ala. After paying her 10-cent fare to board a bus, Parks, 42, moved past the first four rows, reserved for white passengers, and took a seat at the front of the “colored section.” Preoccupied by two imminent events—elections at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a leadership workshop for black teens that she was planning—Parks didn’t notice that the driver was James Blake, the same man who 12 years earlier had told her to get off his bus for failing to enter by the rear door. Now, with a white passenger in need of a seat, Blake ordered Parks to give hers up. When she didn’t move, Blake threatened to have her arrested.
“You may do that,” Parks responded.
With that act of defiance, which landed her in jail, Parks ignited the civil rights movement—a cause to which Parks remained passionately committed right up to her death from natural causes at age 92 on Oct. 24. “It takes more than one person to bring about peace—it takes all of us,” she told PEOPLE in 1995. A team player in a movement top-heavy with stars—and egos—she was a respectable married woman, whose reserved demeanor masked a will of steel. By refusing to surrender her seat on that bus, Parks put her life on the line, and she knew it. “She didn’t just accidentally stumble into history,” says Rev. Jesse Jackson, a longtime friend. “She was a tough, smart woman who made a judgment to take on that whole system.”
When the local NAACP chapter sought her permission to use her case to challenge bus segregation, Parks agreed, despite her husband Raymond’s warning, “Rosa, the white folks will kill you.” Four days later the black residents of Montgomery, led by a young local minister, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., began a 381-day boycott of the city’s transit system. Parks worked as a dispatcher, sending cars to pick up boycotters—right until the Supreme Court ruled that segregated public transportation was unconstitutional.
Despite her image as a bystander thrust into her role by circumstance, Parks was to the movement born. Growing up in the home of her maternal grandparents in rural Pine Level, Ala., young Rosa Louise McCauley often saw her grandfather Sylvester Edwards—a former slave who was the son of a white plantation owner and a house slave—sit with a rifle on the farmhouse porch, vowing to “get the first [Klansman] that came in.” He refused to call white men “Mr.” and lectured Rosa and her younger brother, also named Sylvester, that they should not put up with mistreatment. “It was passed down almost in our genes,” Parks wrote in her 1992 autobiography My Story.
At the same time, Rosa’s mother, Leona, a schoolteacher, preached the importance of education. (Rosa’s father, James, a carpenter, left the family when she was 5.) Forced from school at 16 to care for her ailing grandmother, Parks was such a determined student that she returned to high school at 20 to secure her diploma.
At age 19, Rosa married Raymond Parks, 29, a barber and longtime activist in the NAACP. As one of the Montgomery chapter’s first female members, Rosa served as secretary and youth director, corralling youngsters to protest at the city’s main library, which made fewer books available to blacks. After her arrest in ’55, her influence spread, affecting whites as well as blacks. “I was thrilled when she wouldn’t get up [from her seat],” says former President Bill Clinton, who was 9 at the time. After that, he says, whenever he rode the bus in Arkansas, he “automatically went to the back.”
After the boycott ended, Parks and her husband moved to Detroit to flee shrinking job opportunities and clashing egos within the civil rights movement. “She inspired an enormous amount of jealousy and more or less was driven out of Montgomery,” says Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Martin Luther King Jr. “The success of the bus boycott made a lot of people fight over credit.” In Detroit, Parks resumed her work as a seamstress until 1965, when Rep. John Conyers Jr. hired her as an aide in his local office. That same year, Parks toured rural Alabama to recruit new voters under the newly passed Voting Rights Act.
In her later years, a childless and widowed Parks (her husband died of cancer in 1977) kept such a busy engagement schedule that she asked Conyers for a pay cut. “That’s just the way she was,” says Conyers, who declined her request. “She has this humbleness about her.” In 1999 she received the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Though she died without immediate survivors, she left behind legions of admirers, many of whom share the sentiment of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.): “I feel like I’ve lost a member of our family.”
Jill Smolowe. Linda Kramer, Sharon Cotliar, Steven Helling, Amy Mindell, Barbara Sandler and Fannie Weinstein