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February 26th, 2013
03:42 PM ET

Who is Rosa Parks?

By Libby Lewis, CNN

Editor's Note: Listen to the full story in our player above, and join the conversation in our comments section below.

(CNN) - America loves Rosa Parks. And it loves to memorialize the woman who helped prod her nation forward when she refused to give up her seat to a white man in Montgomery Alabama back in 1955.

But do we know the real Rosa Parks?

Michigan Congressman John Conyers did. He hired Parks to work for him in Detroit after she and her husband got blackballed from working in Montgomery because of their civil rights work.

Conyers said a lot of people don’t know Rosa Parks’ history leading up to that day:

[2:05] "The standard thought that is common place is that she was just tired one day on the bus, and she was just going to sit somewhere. But actually this was carefully thought out in her mind, and she was determined to end segregation."

Parks’ refusal to budge that day was spontaneous – she hadn’t planned it. But she had been working for civil rights for years.

Jeanne Theoharis, a historian and professor of political science at Brooklyn College at the City University of New York, has a new biography called, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks."

Theoharis recounts Rosa Parks’ intense history of political activism before that day on the bus:

[4:42] "She will spend the next 10 years working to make the NAACP a politically active branch – in voter registration, documenting white brutality and sexual violence against black women, against school segregation and other kinds of segregation. So she has this rich political history for more than a decade before we get to that evening on the bus December 1, 1955."

The real Rosa Parks was someone many Americans aren't used to: a polite seamstress – who had Malcolm X as her personal hero.

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