Rosa Lee Parks, was born Rosa McCauley on February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama to James and Leona McCauley. Her father was a carpenter and her mother was a teacher.
Her mother moved her and her brother, Sylvester, to Pine Level, Alabama, about 20 miles outside of Montgomery, after her parents separated in 1915. Her mother home schooled her until age eleven when she went to Montgomery, Alabama to attended the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, a private institution.
She cleaned classrooms to pay her tuition. She attended an all African American high school, Booker T. Washington High School, but she was forced to leave her
education in order to care for her ailing mother.
In 1932 she married a barber named Raymond Parks. He was a man with very little formal education and encouraged her to pursue her schooling. She graduated and
received her diploma in 1934.
She worked as a housekeeper, insurance salesman, and a seamstress over the next few years. During this time she and her husband were active in the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, she was elected to Secretary in 1943. She spent
most of this time trying to improve the lives of African Americans living in Montgomery and challenging the segregation laws dealing with accommodations,
education and transportation. There was little progress in that arena until the mid 1950’s.
Rosa spent her time well. She kept ledgers and books for the NAACP, tracked racial discrimination and worked in the background to build the organization into a strong force for change. She was not just a simple seamstress. While she had not intended to become a lightning rod for the civil rights movement or become “the mother” of it, she spent much of her life trying to end segregation and support those who would bring about change.
The actual incident with Rosa Parks, that started The Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, has been idealized to mythic proportions. But there are some basic
facts that one can glean from the many accounts.
Rosa was working as a tailor’s assistant at the Montgomery Fair Department Store. On December 1st she boarded the bus and sat in the front seat of the “colored”
Understand as well that the entire transportation system was segregated. On a
bus, the front section was reserved for “whites only”. This meant that even
if those seats were empty, and all in back were full, no black person
could sit there. As well, many bus drivers would force African Americans to pay
their fare up front, then exit the bus and enter though the rear door just so
they would not have to pass by any whites sitting in those front rows. In
addition to that pointless humiliation, if all of the white seats were filled,
those sitting in the next rows of seats were expected to get up and allow the
white person to sit in their seat.
And that’s where her more famous escapade started.
She sat with three others in the colored seats, behind a filled white
section. A single white man entered the bus and the bus driver demanded that
they all get up and allow the white man to sit in their place. The others got up but Rosa sat.
The Bus driver threatened to have her arrested.
There are conflicting stories at this point as to her motivation. Some say
she was just too tired to get up – reasonable. Others say that she took an
opportunity to make a stand… that moment, for her, was the last straw and she wasn’t
going to give- it was an opportunity.
Granted, she claims that she recognized the bus driver at that point as one
who’d evicted her from his bus when, 12 years before, she’d refused to enter
through the back of the bus after paying her fare. In my personal opinion, being
a pain in that guy’s ass might have been motivation enough.
It doesn’t really matter what motivated it. The act itself was the
statement. She had already been protesting segregation in other ways – taking
stairs instead of a “blacks only” elevator or walking home instead of taking
the bus. But she sat there alone while the driver and other commuters – even
black- yelled at her to comply so they could get moving. I’m sure that none of
them were concerned, that day, about making a statement.
She was arrested for disorderly conduct and found guilty four days later.
NAACP officials and Montgomery church leaders saw this as an opportunity to
highlight the inequalities of the transport system. At a meeting at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church they elected the pastor,
Martin Luther King Jr. president of the
newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association and he assumed leadership of the movement. The Association started a
boycott of the bus system that lasted 382 days. The boycott lasted until the
transport system changed their discriminatory rules and also hired black bus
Parks was fined for disobeying a city ordinance but was advised not to pay the
fine so that they could challenge the segregation law in court. A year later the
Supreme Court determined that the segregation law was illegal and desegregated the
bus system on December 20, 1956.
For her role in the protests and boycotts, she and her family were
harassed, threatened and fired. Rosa and many members of her family moved to
Detroit, Michigan in 1957. Job prospects weren’t much better in Detroit
for her, but they persevered.
Eventually, 1965, she got a job working for Congressman, John Conyers. She
worked as a receptionist and staff assistant until he retired in 1988. In
addition to this, she continued her work with the NAACP and the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She also served as a deaconess at the
Saint Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church.
In 1987, with the assistance of Elaine Steele, she formed The Rosa and
Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development. Through this non-profit group she
travels the country and lectures on civil-rights. The institute serves as a
training institute for Detroit youths.
On August 30, 1994, Joseph Skipper, an unemployed African American, broke
into her home and beat her repeatedly, then robbed her of 53 dollars. This
confusing incident was made even more confusing when one of the men who caught
Skipper was arrested for being the driver
in an ATM robbery a few months before. Of the event, she wrote: "I pray for
this young man and the conditions in our country that have made him this way.
Despite the violence and crime in our society, we should not let fear overwhelm
us. We must remain strong."
In October 1995 she gave an inspirational speech at the Million Man March in
April 22, 1998, she attended the groundbreaking ceremonies for the Troy State
University Montgomery Rosa Parks Library and Museum to be located on the spot
she was arrested.
Parks filed a lawsuit against the rap duo OutKast in April 1999 for using her
name without her consent. She asked for $25,000 in damages and for them to remove her name from all OutKast products. A federal judge ruled against Parks on November 18, 1999, stating that the First Amendment to the Constitution protects OutKast's right to use Parks' name.
Rosa Parks died in Detroit on October 24th, 2005, at the age of 92, of natural causes.
Honors (a small list):