Rosa Louise McCauley Parks was an American civil rights activist
Rosa Louise McCauley Parks (February 4, 1913 – October 24, 2005) was an American civil rights activist, whom the United States Congress called "the first lady of civil rights" and "the mother of the freedom movement". Her birthday, February 4, and the day she was arrested, December 1, have both become Rosa Parks Day, commemorated in California and Missouri (February 4), and Ohio and Oregon (December 1).
On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Parks refused to obey bus driver James F. Blake's order to give up her seat in the colored section to a white passenger, after the white section was filled. Parks was not the first person to resist bus segregation. Others had taken similar steps, including Bayard Rustin in 1942, Irene Morgan in 1946, Sarah Louise Keys in 1952, and the members of the ultimately successful Browder v. Gayle 1956 lawsuit (Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith) who were arrested in Montgomery for not giving up their bus seats months before Parks. NAACP organizers believed that Parks was the best candidate for seeing through a court challenge after her arrest for civil disobedience in violating Alabama segregation laws, although eventually her case became bogged down in the state courts while the Browder v. Gayle case succeeded.
Parks' act of defiance and the Montgomery Bus Boycott became important symbols of the modern Civil Rights Movement. She became an international icon of resistance to racial segregation. She organized and collaborated with civil rights leaders, including Edgar Nixon, president of the local chapter of the NAACP; and Martin Luther King, Jr., a new minister in town who gained national prominence in the civil rights movement.
At the time, Parks was secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. She had recently attended the Highlander Folk School, a Tennessee center for training activists for workers' rights and racial equality. She acted as a private citizen "tired of giving in". Although widely honored in later years, she also suffered for her act; she was fired from her job as a seamstress in a local department store, and received death threats for years afterwards. Her situation also opened doors.
Shortly after the boycott, she moved to Detroit, where she briefly found similar work. From 1965 to 1988 she served as secretary and receptionist to John Conyers, an African-American US Representative. She was also active in the Black Power movement and the support of political prisoners in the US.
After retirement, Parks wrote her autobiography and continued to insist that the struggle for justice was not over and there was more work to be done. In her final years, she suffered from dementia. Parks received national recognition, including the NAACP's 1979 Spingarn Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and a posthumous statue in the United States Capitol's National Statuary Hall. Upon her death in 2005, she was the first woman and third non-US government official to lie in honor at the Capitol Rotunda.
Rosa Parks was born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama, on February 4, 1913, to Leona (née Edwards), a teacher, and James McCauley, a carpenter. She was of African ancestry, though one of her great-grandfathers was Scots-Irish and one of her great-grandmothers was a slave of Native American descent. She was small as a child and suffered poor health with chronic tonsillitis. When her parents separated, she moved with her mother to Pine Level, just outside the state capital, Montgomery. She grew up on a farm with her maternal grandparents, mother, and younger brother Sylvester. They all were members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), a century-old independent black denomination founded by free blacks in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the early nineteenth century.
McCauley attended rural schools until the age of eleven. As a student at the Industrial School for Girls in Montgomery, she took academic and vocational courses. Parks went on to a laboratory school set up by the Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes for secondary education, but dropped out in order to care for her grandmother and later her mother, after they became ill.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the former Confederate states had adopted new constitutions and electoral laws that effectively disfranchised black voters and, in Alabama, many poor white voters as well. Under the white-established Jim Crow laws, passed after Democrats regained control of southern legislatures, racial segregation was imposed in public facilities and retail stores in the South, including public transportation. Bus and train companies enforced seating policies with separate sections for blacks and whites. School bus transportation was unavailable in any form for black schoolchildren in the South, and black education was always underfunded.
Parks recalled going to elementary school in Pine Level, where school buses took white students to their new school and black students had to walk to theirs:
I'd see the bus pass every day... But to me, that was a way of life; we had no choice but to accept what was the custom. The bus was among the first ways I realized there was a black world and a white world.
Although Parks' autobiography recounts early memories of the kindness of white strangers, she could not ignore the racism of her society. When the Ku Klux Klan marched down the street in front of their house, Parks recalls her grandfather guarding the front door with a shotgun. The Montgomery Industrial School, founded and staffed by white northerners for black children, was burned twice by arsonists. Its faculty was ostracized by the white community.
Repeatedly bullied by white children in her neighborhood, Parks often fought back physically. She later said that "As far back as I remember, I could never think in terms of accepting physical abuse without some form of retaliation if possible."
In 1932, Rosa married Raymond Parks, a barber from Montgomery. He was a member of the NAACP, which at the time was collecting money to support the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of black men falsely accused of raping two white women. Rosa took numerous jobs, ranging from domestic worker to hospital aide. At her husband's urging, she finished her high school studies in 1933, at a time when less than 7% of African Americans had a high school diploma. Despite the Jim Crow laws and discrimination by registrars, she succeeded in registering to vote on her third try.
In December 1943, Parks became active in the Civil Rights Movement, joined the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, and was elected secretary. She later said, "I was the only woman there, and they needed a secretary, and I was too timid to say no." She continued as secretary until 1957. She worked for the local NAACP leader Edgar Nixon, even though he maintained that "Women don't need to be nowhere but in the kitchen." When Parks asked "Well, what about me?", he replied "I need a secretary and you are a good one."
In 1944, in her capacity as secretary, she investigated the gang-rape of Recy Taylor, a black woman from Abbeville, Alabama. Parks and other civil rights activists organized the "Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor", launching what the Chicago Defender called "the strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade."
Although never a member of the Communist Party, she attended meetings with her husband. The notorious Scottsboro case had been brought to prominence by the Communist Party.
In the 1940s, Parks and her husband were members of the Voters' League. Sometime soon after 1944, she held a brief job at Maxwell Air Force Base, which, despite its location in Montgomery, Alabama, did not permit racial segregation because it was federal property. She rode on its integrated trolley. Speaking to her biographer, Parks noted, "You might just say Maxwell opened my eyes up." Parks worked as a housekeeper and seamstress for Clifford and Virginia Durr, a white couple. Politically liberal, the Durrs became her friends. They encouraged—and eventually helped sponsor—Parks in the summer of 1955 to attend the Highlander Folk School, an education center for activism in workers' rights and racial equality in Monteagle, Tennessee. There Parks was mentored by the veteran organizer Septima Clark.
In August 1955, black teenager Emmett Till was brutally murdered after reportedly flirting with a young white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi. On November 27, 1955, four days before she would make her stand on the bus, Rosa Parks attended a mass meeting at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery that addressed this case as well as the recent murders of the activists George W. Lee and Lamar Smith. The featured speaker was T. R. M. Howard, a black civil rights leader from Mississippi who headed the Regional Council of Negro Leadership. Howard brought news of the recent acquittal of the two men who had murdered Till. Parks was deeply saddened and angry at the news, particularly because Till's case had garnered much more attention than any of the cases she and the Montgomery NAACP had worked on—and yet, the two men still walked free.
In 1900, Montgomery had passed a city ordinance to segregate bus passengers by race. Conductors were empowered to assign seats to achieve that goal. According to the law, no passenger would be required to move or give up his seat and stand if the bus was crowded and no other seats were available. Over time and by custom, however, Montgomery bus drivers adopted the practice of requiring black riders to move when there were no white-only seats left.
The first four rows of seats on each Montgomery bus were reserved for whites. Buses had "colored" sections for black people generally in the rear of the bus, although blacks composed more than 75% of the ridership. The sections were not fixed but were determined by placement of a movable sign. Black people could sit in the middle rows until the white section filled; if more whites needed seats, blacks were to move to seats in the rear, stand, or, if there was no room, leave the bus. Black people could not sit across the aisle in the same row as white people. The driver could move the "colored" section sign, or remove it altogether. If white people were already sitting in the front, black people had to board at the front to pay the fare, then disembark and reenter through the rear door.
For years, the black community had complained that the situation was unfair. Parks said, "My resisting being mistreated on the bus did not begin with that particular arrest...I did a lot of walking in Montgomery."
One day in 1943, Parks boarded the bus and paid the fare. She then moved to her seat but driver James F. Blake told her to follow city rules and enter the bus again from the back door. Parks exited the vehicle and waited for the next bus, determined never to ride with Blake again.
After working all day, Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus, a General Motors Old Look bus belonging to the Montgomery City Lines, around 6 p.m., Thursday, December 1, 1955, in downtown Montgomery. She paid her fare and sat in an empty seat in the first row of back seats reserved for blacks in the "colored" section. Near the middle of the bus, her row was directly behind the ten seats reserved for white passengers. Initially, she did not notice that the bus driver was the same man, James F. Blake, who had left her in the rain in 1943. As the bus traveled along its regular route, all of the white-only seats in the bus filled up. The bus reached the third stop in front of the Empire Theater, and several white passengers boarded. Blake noted that two or three white passengers were standing, as the front of the bus had filled to capacity. He moved the "colored" section sign behind Parks and demanded that four black people give up their seats in the middle section so that the white passengers could sit.
Years later, in recalling the events of the day, Parks said, "When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination to cover my body like a quilt on a winter night."
By Parks' account, Blake said, "Y'all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats." Three of them complied. Parks said, "The driver wanted us to stand up, the four of us. We didn't move at the beginning, but he says, 'Let me have these seats.' And the other three people moved, but I didn't." The black man sitting next to her gave up his seat.
Parks moved, but toward the window seat; she did not get up to move to the redesignated colored section. Parks later said about being asked to move to the rear of the bus, "I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn't go back." Blake said, "Why don't you stand up?" Parks responded, "I don't think I should have to stand up." Blake called the police to arrest Parks. When recalling the incident for Eyes on the Prize, a 1987 public television series on the Civil Rights Movement, Parks said, "When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, 'No, I'm not.' And he said, 'Well, if you don't stand up, I'm going to have to call the police and have you arrested.' I said, 'You may do that.'"
During a 1956 radio interview with Sydney Rogers in West Oakland several months after her arrest, Parks said she had decided, "I would have to know for once and for all what rights I had as a human being and a citizen."
In her autobiography, My Story she said:
People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.
When Parks refused to give up her seat, a police officer arrested her. As the officer took her away, she recalled that she asked, "Why do you push us around?" She remembered him saying, "I don't know, but the law's the law, and you're under arrest." She later said, "I only knew that, as I was being arrested, that it was the very last time that I would ever ride in humiliation of this kind..."
Parks was charged with a violation of Chapter 6, Section 11 segregation law of the Montgomery City code, although technically she had not taken a white-only seat; she had been in a colored section. Edgar Nixon, president of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and leader of the Pullman Porters Union, and her friend Clifford Durr bailed Parks out of jail the next evening.
Nixon conferred with Jo Ann Robinson, an Alabama State College professor and member of the Women's Political Council (WPC), about the Parks case. Robinson believed it important to seize the opportunity and stayed up all night mimeographing over 35,000 handbills announcing a bus boycott. The Women's Political Council was the first group to officially endorse the boycott.
On Sunday, December 4, 1955, plans for the Montgomery Bus Boycott were announced at black churches in the area, and a front-page article in the Montgomery Advertiser helped spread the word. At a church rally that night, those attending agreed unanimously to continue the boycott until they were treated with the level of courtesy they expected, until black drivers were hired, and until seating in the middle of the bus was handled on a first-come basis.
The next day, Parks was tried on charges of disorderly conduct and violating a local ordinance. The trial lasted 30 minutes. After being found guilty and fined $10, plus $4 in court costs, Parks appealed her conviction and formally challenged the legality of racial segregation. In a 1992 interview with National Public Radio's Lynn Neary, Parks recalled:
I did not want to be mistreated, I did not want to be deprived of a seat that I had paid for. It was just time... there was opportunity for me to take a stand to express the way I felt about being treated in that manner. I had not planned to get arrested. I had plenty to do without having to end up in jail. But when I had to face that decision, I didn't hesitate to do so because I felt that we had endured that too long. The more we gave in, the more we complied with that kind of treatment, the more oppressive it became.
On the day of Parks' trial — December 5, 1955 — the WPC distributed the 35,000 leaflets. The handbill read,
We are...asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial ... You can afford to stay out of school for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don't ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off the buses Monday.
It rained that day, but the black community persevered in their boycott. Some rode in carpools, while others traveled in black-operated cabs that charged the same fare as the bus, 10 cents. Most of the remainder of the 40,000 black commuters walked, some as far as 20 miles (30 km).
That evening after the success of the one-day boycott, a group of 16 to 18 people gathered at the Mt. Zion AME Zion Church to discuss boycott strategies. At that time Parks was introduced but not asked to speak, despite a standing ovation and calls from the crowd for her to speak; when she asked if she should say something, the reply was, "Why, you've said enough."
The group agreed that a new organization was needed to lead the boycott effort if it were to continue. Rev. Ralph Abernathy suggested the name "Montgomery Improvement Association" (MIA).:432 The name was adopted, and the MIA was formed. Its members elected as their president Martin Luther King, Jr., a relative newcomer to Montgomery, who was a young and mostly unknown minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
That Monday night, 50 leaders of the African-American community gathered to discuss actions to respond to Parks' arrest. Edgar Nixon, the president of the NAACP, said, "My God, look what segregation has put in my hands!" Parks was considered the ideal plaintiff for a test case against city and state segregation laws, as she was seen as a responsible, mature woman with a good reputation. She was securely married and employed, was regarded as possessing a quiet and dignified demeanor, and was politically savvy. King said that Parks was regarded as "one of the finest citizens of Montgomery—not one of the finest Negro citizens, but one of the finest citizens of Montgomery."
Parks' court case was being slowed down in appeals through the Alabama courts on their way to a Federal appeal and the process could have taken years. Holding together a boycott for that length of time would have been a great strain. In the end, black residents of Montgomery continued the boycott for 381 days. Dozens of public buses stood idle for months, severely damaging the bus transit company's finances, until the city repealed its law requiring segregation on public buses following the US Supreme Court ruling in Browder v. Gayle that it was unconstitutional. Parks was not included as a plaintiff in the Browder decision because the attorney Fred Gray concluded the courts would perceive they were attempting to circumvent her prosecution on her charges working their way through the Alabama state court system.
Parks played an important part in raising international awareness of the plight of African Americans and the civil rights struggle. King wrote in his 1958 book Stride Toward Freedom that Parks' arrest was the catalyst rather than the cause of the protest: "The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices." He wrote, "Actually, no one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, 'I can take it no longer.'"
Parks on a Montgomery bus on December 21, 1956, the day Montgomery's public transportation system was legally integrated
Due to economic sanctions used against activists, she lost her job at the department store.
Parks on a Montgomery bus on December 21, 1956, the day Montgomery's public transportation system was legally integrated. Behind Parks is Nicholas C. Chriss, a UPI reporter covering the event.
After her arrest, Parks became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement but suffered hardships as a result. Due to economic sanctions used against activists, she lost her job at the department store. Her husband quit his job after his boss forbade him to talk about his wife or the legal case. Parks traveled and spoke extensively about the issues.
In 1957, Raymond and Rosa Parks left Montgomery for Hampton, Virginia; mostly because she was unable to find work. She also disagreed with King and other leaders of Montgomery's struggling civil rights movement about how to proceed, and was constantly receiving death threats. In Hampton, she found a job as a hostess in an inn at Hampton Institute, a historically black college.
Later that year, at the urging of her brother and sister-in-law in Detroit, Sylvester and Daisy McCauley, Rosa and Raymond Parks and her mother moved north to join them. The City of Detroit attempted to cultivate a progressive reputation, but Parks encountered numerous signs of discrimination against African-Americans. Schools were effectively segregated, and services in black neighborhoods substandard. In 1964, Mrs. Parks told an interviewer that, "I don't feel a great deal of difference here...Housing segregation is just as bad, and it seems more noticeable in the larger cities." She regularly participated in the movement for open and fair housing.
Parks rendered crucial assistance in the first campaign for Congress by John Conyers.
She persuaded Martin Luther King (who was generally reluctant to endorse local candidates) to appear with Conyers, thereby boosting the novice candidate's profile. When Conyers was elected, he hired her as a secretary and receptionist for his congressional office in Detroit. She held this position until she retired in 1988. In a telephone interview with CNN on October 24, 2005, Conyers recalled, "You treated her with deference because she was so quiet, so serene — just a very special person ... There was only one Rosa Parks." Doing much of the daily constituent work for Conyers, Parks often focused on socio-economic issues including welfare, education, job discrimination, and affordable housing. She visited schools, hospitals, senior citizen facilities, and other community meetings and kept Conyers grounded in community concerns and activism.
Parks participated in activism nationally during the mid-1960s, traveling to support the Selma-to-Montgomery Marches, the Freedom Now Party, and the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. She also befriended Malcolm X, who she regarded as a personal hero.
Like many Detroit blacks, Mrs. Parks remained particularly concerned about housing issues. She herself lived in a neighborhood, Virginia Park, which had been compromised by highway construction and urban renewal. By 1962, these policies had destroyed 10,000 structures in Detroit, displacing 43,096 people, 70 percent of them African-American. Parks lived just a mile from the epicenter of the riot that took place in Detroit in 1967, and she considered housing discrimination a major factor that provoked the disorder.
In the aftermath Mrs. Parks collaborated with members of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Republic of New Afrika in raising awareness of police abuse during the conflict. She served on a "people's tribunal" on August 30, 1967 investigating the killing of three young men by police during the 1967 Detroit uprising, in what came to be known as the Algiers Hotel Incident. She also helped form the Virginia Park district council to help rebuild the area. The council facilitated the building of the only black-owned shopping center in the country. Parks took part in the black power movement, attending the Philadelphia Black Power conference, and the Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. She also supported and visited the Black Panther school in Oakland.