1987

Rosa Parks

Who … with total conviction and courage, launched a boycott, changed a law, and helped reform a nation. Her indomitable spirit was the life force and catalyst for what has become the civil rights movement of this country. 


 Photograph of Rosa Parks with Dr. Martin Luther King jr. (ca. 1955). [National Archives record ID: 306-PSD-65-1882 (Box 93). Source: Ebony Magazine]   

Photograph of Rosa Parks with Dr. Martin Luther King jr. (ca. 1955). [National Archives record ID: 306-PSD-65-1882 (Box 93). Source: Ebony Magazine]

 

Rosa Parks has famously been referred to as the “mother” of the civil rights movement. One day, feeling tired and weary, she refused to surrender her bus seat to a white man. This idea of a weak, elderly woman is far from an accurate portrayal of Parks, who asserted that “the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” 

Rosa Parks (née McCauley) was born and raised in Alabama. Rosa’s mother, wanting her daughter to be educated, enrolled her in a private school for girls. She later attended Alabama State Teacher’s College High School, leaving first to care for her grandmother and then for her mother. She finally finished her degree on 1934, two years after marrying Raymond Parks. The couple made their home in Montgomery, and joined the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, with Rosa serving as secretary. They worked for years on cases of abuses suffered by black people, cases that did not seem to gain much traction in bringing change to the South, where segregation and racism were part of daily life. 

Segregation on the public buses was a particularly strong issue. The buses had a reserved section for white passengers and a separate one for black passengers. There were signs indicating the “colored” section that could be moved down the rows of seats to force the black passengers to move back, even stand up, to accommodate white passengers. Sometimes the black passengers had to enter through the back of the bus; if the bus became too crowded, they could be forced off the bus entirely. This was both law and custom in Montgomery. 

Rosa Parks was already known to certain bus drivers for acts of defiance against segregation, such as refusing to walk to the back entrance of the bus; some drivers would not allow her to board. By the time of her arrest, the idea of a bus boycott was already brewing. Parks was on her way home from her job as a seamstress on a typical night, and was sitting in the “colored” section. As the bus filled with white passengers, the driver (coincidentally, the same driver Parks had encountered years before, who had thrown her off the bus for not going to the back entrance), moved the sign and ordered the black passengers to move back. Parks refused, having had enough of that kind of humiliating treatment. She was threatened with arrest, but remained calmly seated, saying, “You may do that.” 

The day of her trial, December 5, 1955, just four days after her arrest, a one-day bus boycott was successfully executed by the leaders of the desegregation movement. Ready to continue on, a new organization was formed called the Montgomery Improvement Association, led by a young, unknown minister, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Association already had a candidate for the movement in Claudette Colvin, a 15-year old girl who had earlier been arrested for having refused, like Parks, to give up her seat on a bus. But Colvin had dark skin and was a pregnant teenager. In sharp contrast, Parks was lighter-skinned, well-educated, active in politics, employed, and married. It was felt that she was, on the whole, a more persuasive choice to act as the face of the civil rights movement. Her arrest led not just to the one-day bus boycott, but to the organized boycott that lasted over 380 days, forcing the law to change regarding bus segregation. 

Later, she and her husband moved to Detroit, where she worked for Congressman John Conyers. She co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development in 1987, in honor of her late husband, to work with young people, helping them to fulfill their potential to be agents for change. When Rosa Parks died, her casket was placed in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol for two days to lay in state, an honor usually reserved for U.S. Presidents. 

By her own admission, Rosa Parks was a busy woman who did not set out to become famous. Her refusal to stand, and the events that followed, were not planned. Rather, it was the idea that enough was enough, that people should not be treated like that anymore that kept Parks in her seat, thus setting in motion the Civil Rights Movement in America.