For many, Rosa Parks's story began on December 1, 1955, when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Ala., bus -- setting off a 381-day boycott of the city bus system. But she was already 42 when she quietly said no to Jim Crow. Douglas Brinkley's recently reissued Rosa Parks: A Life (Penguin; paperback, $13) describes how Parks, who died in October at the age of 92, got to that definitive point. From her birth in 1913 in a plywood shanty in Tuskegee, Ala., and her education at Miss White's Industrial School for Girls in Montgomery, Parks was taught, she said, "that I was a person with dignity and self-respect and I should not set my sights lower than anybody just because I was black."
Her marriage to Raymond Parks, one of the charter members of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, awakened her political conscience, while her job at a nearby military base showed her what an integrated society could look like. By the time of that famous bus ride, she had thrown herself into civil rights activism.
Brinkley argues that Parks had not planned to spark a rebellion that December evening. But she had long resolved to stand for her rights if a situation like this one arose: "There had to be a stopping place," she explained a few months later, "and this seemed to have been the place for me to stop being pushed around and to find out what human rights I had, if any."
-- Rachel Hartigan Shea