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The Thread That Unraveled Segregation

Rosa Parks at her sewing machine in 1956, shortly after the start of the bus boycott.
Rosa Parks at her sewing machine in 1956, shortly after the start of the bus boycott. (By Don Cravens -- Time & Life Pictures Via Getty Images)

Parks was 42 years old at the time, married but childless. She considered her membership in the NAACP a point of special pride.

A young Martin Luther King Jr. would ultimately lead the 380-day bus boycott, along with E.D. Nixon, a stalwart of the Alabama NAACP. Her good friend Jo Ann Robinson, president of the Women's Political Caucus in Montgomery, arranged transportation for the boycotters.

Suddenly, the cameras caught her. Negro newsmen sought Parks out, lifting their fedoras to her and wondering if they might have an interview.

She looked so prim and proper in that famous photograph: She's down at the police station, being fingerprinted, in her tweedy outfit, her glasses, her hair swept up, just a little, and pressed back. A meticulous woman, who looked almost severe, as if she had just arrived from a social tea. You might imagine she had a pair of spotless white gloves in her purse.

She had, in fact, tasted integration while working on a military base. It was as if she had partaken of something precious and sweet -- and she never forgot the taste.

Virginia Durr -- Lucy's mother -- was a writer in Montgomery, and passionate about civil rights. Parks would sit with Durr before the boycott catapulted her into the limelight and the two women would chat and cackle.

"They'd talk about the dailiness of life," Lucy Durr Hackney says.

She goes on: "They'd talk about the gossip in the black community and the gossip in the white community. They'd talk about ending segregation. And they'd talk about which white men were sleeping with black women in town."

It was no secret that a transportation boycott would happen in Montgomery, Hackney says. And yet, no one knew it would be Rosa Parks. No one knew what day -- Monday? Thursday? -- she'd refuse to get up so a white man could have her seat. "The day she sat down and didn't get up was a decision she herself had made," Hackney says.

"Rosa Parks was a gentle person and a real 'lady,' a term very seldom applied to black women in Alabama then," says Sheldon Hackney, Lucy's husband, a native Alabaman and former president of the University of Pennsylvania. "You would not think of her as a revolutionary. She was described as a simple seamstress, but she was anything but simple."

When the Supreme Court decision came down, the men in the movement -- Nixon, King -- dominated the TV cameras. Parks refused to complain.

Of course she lost her job. Of course there were death threats. Parks left Alabama in 1957, finally settling in Detroit.

Later in her life, as she became a symbol and a myth, a publicity machine built up around her. At times she seemed like someone caught in the klieg lights.

"She was so self-effacing," Franklin says.

For the rest of her life, Parks gave the impression that her nation-altering protest would have occurred even if there had been no TV cameras, no radio, no newspapers. Her move seemed deep as Gospel and in the end, timeless. A declaration both simple and eloquent: I am a lady. And I'd like to remain in my seat, please.

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