“We received a call upon arrival the bus driver said he had a colored female sitting in the white section of the bus, and would not move back.” These words, from the official City of Montgomery police report from December 1st, 1955, recorded one of the pivotal events of the 20th century into history forever. Rosa Louise Parks, a 42-year-old African-American woman, had refused to relinquish her seat to a white passenger. Today marks the 100th birthday of Rosa Parks, whose legendary name has become synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement. Looking back at her life and legacy, let’s learn more about the Rosa Parks behind the historical portrait. Who was she really, and how did she become a legend in her own time?
She was born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama on February 4th 1913. Tuskegee was known as the home of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, which became an important African American college and is known today as Tuskegee University. Her father, James McCauley, was a carpenter who was part African American, Scots-Irish and Native American. Her mother, Leona Edwards McCauley, was a teacher who traveled often for her job, taking her away from home. After her parents split up, Rosa and her brother moved to their grandparents’ farm in Pine Level, Alabama, near Montgomery. When she was 11, Rosa’s mother sent her to the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, a private school where, by all accounts, she received an excellent education. She then went on to the Alabama State Teachers College but later dropped out to care for her grandmother.
Rosa’s maternal grandfather, who had been a slave, had been a supporter of Marcus Garvey, the founder of the United Negro Improvement Association. The Jamaican-born Garvey was an advocate of Pan-African solidarity. Garvey became well known for his plans to help blacks return to Africa. His overall vision for justice for African Americans inspired many blacks to build movements for change. Garveyism was just one of many influences in Rosa’s community and early life. As life worsened for many African Americans in the first decades of the 20th century, they turned to many sources to find potential blueprints for change. Rosa and others in her community followed the story of the Scottsboro boys—nine young black men who were arrested in Scottsboro, Alabama after being accused of raping two white women on a train in 1931. The case became a national story when eight of the young men were convicted and sentenced to death, based only on circumstantial evidence. The case drew many activists to Alabama and became a rallying cry for social justice in the South.
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In 1932, at the age of 19, she married a barber named Raymond Parks. Parks was passionate about civil rights issues and education, and he had been an advocate for justice for the Scottsboro boys. He encouraged Rosa to return to school, and in 1934 she graduated from high school. Together, they became active members of the NAACP (National Association for Advancement of Colored People). Rosa Parks was also a member of the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church, a congregation that had roots in the movement against slavery.
The AME church continued to play a role in the struggle for equality throughout the 20th century. Songs known as spirituals, which were popular in churches such as the AME, helped inspire the Civil Rights Movement in many communities. In 1943, Parks became the secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, a post she would hold for over a decade. She also worked as a seamstress at a local department store. Rosa’s brother Sylvester was among the hundreds of thousands of African Americans who served during World War II. Upon his return from the war in 1945, he, like many former African American soldiers, faced discrimination and disrespect. This treatment became another flashpoint in the struggle for civil rights.
Parks worked on voter registration drives and other civil rights issues under the leadership of NAACP chapter head E.D. Nixon. Nixon and Virginia Durr, a white civil rights activist in Montgomery, encouraged her to attend the Highlander Folk School, an organizing institute for civil rights activists. Parks attended a two-week workshop there, learning more about the activist movement which was gaining steam after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954.
By the time Parks was arrested in December 1955 for refusing to give up her seat, several other African Americans had been arrested for the same reason, including a young woman named Claudette Colvin. Yet the NAACP, with Parks’ cooperation, decided to make her case the launch point for a massive bus boycott aimed at ending segregation. Though images of Parks as a quiet and tired seamstress have abounded, in actuality, her complex set of influences, family connections, and activist history provided a powerful backdrop for her decision to challenge segregation. Parks was actually arrested not once, but twice. On February 3, 1956, she, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others were indicted for organizing the bus boycott, which the state of Alabama declared was illegal. King, Parks, and others willingly turned themselves in and were arrested. In December 1956, the bus laws were finally found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court—a huge victory for the growing Civil Rights Movement. The bus boycott had lasted for 381 days, drawing international attention to the status of racial injustice in the American south.
After the bus boycott ended, Parks and her husband struggled to find work. They received many threats and were hounded with negative attention. In 1957, they moved to Virginia, and then to Detroit where her brother lived. Though she had achieved notoriety on the national stage, Parks had a hard time finding sustained employment. Local organizations took up collections to help Parks and her husband make ends meet.
After moving to Michigan, she met John Conyers, who would soon be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Conyers was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus; Rosa joined his staff in 1965 and worked for his office until 1988. In 1987, Parks co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Institute for Self Development in Detroit. The organization was devoted to mentoring young people and teaching them about civil rights issues.
Over the years, Parks gave countless talks and interviews, reflecting on her experiences as a Civil Rights pioneer. She received numerous awards and accolades, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. She also reflected on her life in an autobiography entitled Rosa Parks: My Story published in 1992; in this moving story, Parks provided context for readers to understand how and why she became politically engaged.
Parks lived alone after the death of her husband Raymond in 1977. In 1994, she made headlines when she was tragically robbed and attacked in her apartment by a young man named Joseph Skipper. Skipper, a drug addict, stole $53 from Parks in the attack. It was a very sad chapter in the life of a woman who had devoted her life to change. Parks was forced to move into a high rise apartment building for additional security.
In her later years, she struggled financially but continued to speak about her role in the Civil Rights Movement and offer advice to young people. In 1995, Parks was invited to attend the Million Man March by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, which she accepted. Given Farrakhan’s controversial views, many people felt that Parks must have been unaware of the complexities of her attendance at the march, but Parks gave a short and heartfelt speech. Among the things she said to the crowd, “I am proud of all groups of people who feel connected with me in any way, and I will always work for human rights for all people.
Parks passed away on October 24, 2005. She was honored with extensive funerals in Detroit, Montgomery, and Washington, D.C. In Montgomery and Detroit, front seats of buses were decorated with black ribbons in the days after her death. Parks became the first African-American woman to be honored in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. with a public viewing. Visitors flocked to the city to pay tribute to the woman who had become a Civil Rights hero to so many. She was buried in Detroit, placed between her husband and her mother in a mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery. Throughout the country, schools, highways, and buildings have been named after the women now known as the Mother of the Modern Day Civil Rights Movement. For those interested in reading more about Rosa Parks, see the newly released book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, by Jeanne Theoharis.