One December evening in 1955, Rosa Parks took a stand against racial segregation by simply sitting down. That event played a major role in the disintegration of segregation along with the dawning of the civil rights movement and etched her into the history books. After working at the Montgomery Fair Department store in Montgomery, Alabama, as a seamstress, Rosa boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus in the manner that the Montgomery segregation laws permitted.
The 42-year old black woman stepped onto the bus and paid her fare to the driver and then exited the bus to reenter through the back door. Rosa took a seat in the first row of the “colored section.” According to the law, if the white section filled up, blacks had to give up their seat and move further back. That was the case on December 1, 1955, when Rosa and three other African Americans were told to move from the seats they were occupying. Everyone obliged except Rosa. She stayed in her seat. Her determination led to her arrest. She was charged with disorderly conduct and fined $14. She also lost her job as a seamstress. This was not Rosa’s first incident regarding segregation on a bus.
Twelve years earlier, Rosa entered through the front of the bus and was told to get off and reenter through the rear. As she did, she dropped her purse and sat down to bend over and pick it up. When she did, the bus driver, James Blake, became irate and drove away the instant she stepped foot off the bus, leaving Rosa to walk the remaining five miles to her house in the rain. Ironically, it was the same bus driver in both incidents. The Rosa Parks arrest ignited the motivation that the black community needed to put an end to such discriminating and humiliating laws. Rosa would pave the way and become known as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Rosa Parks was born on February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama to James and Leona McCauley. Her father was a carpenter and her mother worked as a teacher. Rosa attended Alabama State Teachers College High School and was on her way to graduating when her grandmother fell ill. She quit school to take care of her grandmother until she passed away. Rosa was all set to return to school when her mother became sick so she stayed home to help her ailing mother. Amidst all of this, Rosa married Raymond Parks in 1932. Two years later, she earned her high school diploma which was an accomplishment in itself considering at that time less than seven percent of the African American population had a high school diploma.
Naturally when word spread of Rosa’s arrest, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and the black community organized a boycott of the bus line. Two-thirds of the bus riders were black. Led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the boycott lasted 381 days as thousands of people protested throughout the country for equal rights among all Americans. Rosa became the ideal candidate to lead the push for integration. Earlier that year, a 15-year old girl had been arrested for the very same thing. She was unwed and pregnant so civil rights activists did not think she would be able to handle the intense scrutiny of the courts, the media and the public so they did not pursue the case. Then a few months later, it happened to another woman but once again, they did not think she would be able to cope with the pressure. But Rosa was already active in the civil rights movement and as the secretary of the NAACP, she was the ideal candidate.
Throughout the boycott, terrorism became a factor when those in favor of segregation retaliated by burning black churches. Martin Luther King’s home was damaged by a bomb. Rosa Parks’ stand against segregation initiated the boycott but the NAACP wanted to ensure a solid federal case. Four other women who encountered problems with the Montgomery bus system took the stand as plaintiffs in the civil action law suit, one of whom was Aurelia Browder. The case became known as Browder vs. Gayle. Gayle was the mayor of Montgomery. It was successful and brought an end to bus segregation. In 1957, Rosa and her husband moved to Virginia and then settled in Detroit, Michigan, where Rosa picked up work as a seamstress.
Then in 1965, US Representative John Conyers, an African American, hired Rosa as a secretary in his Detroit office. In 1977, Raymond Parks died from cancer. Ten years later, Rosa and Elaine Eason Steele founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development. This youth organization teaches children to set and reach goals and the importance of equal rights. Throughout her life she worked with youth programs and educated youngsters on civil rights. Rosa Parks retired from US Representative Conyers’ office in 1988 at age 75. Still, she kept busy delivering lectures and accepting countless awards. She received more than 43 honorary doctorate degrees along with hundreds of plaques, citations and awards. She was the recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Non-Violent Peace Prize and the 1994 Rosa Parks Peace Prize. In 1996, President Clinton awarded her with the highest award given to a civilian citizen – the Medal of Freedom. She also attended Clinton’s State of the Union Address in 1999 and received a standing ovation when he introduced her. Rosa then went on to receive the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor. The state of Michigan honored her with a holiday.
The first Monday after Feb. 4th is known as Mrs. Rosa Parks’ Day. Time Magazine voted her as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. She met with Pope John Paul in 2000 when he visited St. Louis, Missouri. On Dec. 1st, 2000, forty-five years to the day of the infamous bus incident, was the dedication of the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, located on the corner where she boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus. The actual bus is on exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum. Rosa Parks died from natural causes at her home in Detroit on October 24, 2005 at the age of 92. A year earlier, she was diagnosed with progressive dementia. Her body was allowed to lie in honor in the US Capitol Rotunda. President George W. Bush ordered flags to be flown at half staff on the day of her funeral. The funeral service lasted seven hours. She was an inspirational woman who tired of being mistreated. While a simple bus ride changed her life, Rosa Parks changed history.
CNN (2005). Civil Rights Icon Rosa Parks Dies At 92. Retrieved February 26, 2007 from www.cnn.com/2005/US/10/25/parks.obit/index.html.
Dove, R. (1999). Her Simple Act Of Protest Galvanized America’s Civil Rights Revolution. Retrieved February 26, 2007 from www.time.com/time/time100/heroes/profile/parks03.html.
McElrath, J. Times News Company (2007). Rosa Parks. Retrieved February 26, 2007.
Rosa Louise Parks Biography. Retrieved February 26, 2007.
Wikipedia (2007). Rosa Parks. Retrieved February 26, 2007 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosa_Parks.
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