RosA Parks: Mother of the Freedom Movement
December 1, 1955, marked the day one woman would alter the course of American civil rights. Many historians refer to it as the moment the modern movement began.
When Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white passenger on a bus, she was arrested and fined for violating a city ordinance. Her brave defiance would help inspire the end of legal segregation of public facilities, as well as the extension of rights for minorities nationwide.
Rosa Parks Early Years
Rosa Louise McCauley was born on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama, to Leona, a teacher, and James, a carpenter.
Upon Leona’s and James’ separation when Rosa was two, Leona moved the family to her parents’ farm in Pine Level, Alabama, just outside of Montgomery. Rosa spent her childhood on the farm.
Leona taught Rosa to read at a young age. Rosa went on to attend a segregated, one-room school in Pine Level. She continued attending segregated schools until dropping out in the 11th grade to take care of her ailing mother and grandmother in Pine Level.
While she could recall being treated well by white strangers, Rosa’s childhood made her familiar with racial discrimination. She had to walk to school while white students received bus transportation. On one occasion, her grandfather guarded their house with a shotgun as members of the Ku Klux Klan marched past.
Rosa Parks Adulthood
In 1932 at age 19, Rosa met and married Raymond Parks, a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). With Raymond’s support, she finished her high school degree, becoming one of only 7% of African Americans to hold one.
She and Raymond settled in Montgomery, where she became more involved in civil-rights issues through the NAACP’s Montgomery chapter. She would go on to serve as secretary to NAACP President E.D. Nixon, a post she held until 1957.
In August 1955, black teenager Emmett Till was killed after reportedly flirting with a young white woman while he was visiting relatives in Mississippi. In November, Rosa attended a mass meeting in Montgomery that addressed the case as well as recent murders of other civil right activists. The discussions centered on what actions blacks could take to improve their civil rights.
The Bus and the Montgomery Boycott
The Montgomery City Code of the 1950s required public transportation to be segregated. Bus drivers were to provide separate but equal accommodations for white and black passengers by assigning seats. To do so, they created a line near the middle of the bus dividing white passengers in the front and African Americans in the back.
When African-American passengers – who made up more than 75% of bus ridership – boarded the bus, they entered the front door to pay their fare and then re-boarded through the back door. If the seats in front filled up and more white passengers got on, the driver would move back the sign between the white and black sections. Though the city code didn’t authorize him, he would ask black passengers give up their seats for the whites. If the black passenger protested, the driver could refuse service and contact the police to have him or her removed.
On December 1, 1955, after leaving from her job at a Montgomery department store, Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus for home. She took a seat in the first row reserved for “colored” passengers toward the rear.
The bus soon began to fill with white passengers. The driver noted that several white passengers were being forced to stand.
He stopped the bus and moved the sign separating the black and white sections back one row. He then asked four black passengers to surrender their seats. All but Rosa complied. The driver called the police, who arrested her and charged her with violating the city ordinance, even though she hadn’t technically taken a white-only seat. They brought her to police headquarters, where she was later released on bail.
On the evening of Rosa’s arrest, local NAACP President Nixon and other black community leaders began to plan for a boycott of Montgomery’s buses. Through newspaper ads and printed handbills, they asked the city’s African Americans to protest her arrest by avoiding all buses on Monday, December 5, 1955, the day of her trial.
It rained that day, but the city’s 40,000 black commuters followed through on the boycott. Instead of riding the bus, many traveled in carpools or black-operated cabs. Most others walked—some as far as 20 miles to work.
Montgomery’s African Americans agreed to maintain the boycott until they were treated with the courtesy they expected, black bus drivers were hired and seating in the middle of city buses operated on a first-come basis.
The boycott continued until December 20, 1956, dealing a major financial blow to the bus company. Montgomery ultimately repealed its law requiring segregation on public buses following a separate U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Browder vs. Gayle). The Montgomery Bus Boycott became one of the most prolific and successful efforts against racial segregation in history.
The First Lady of Civil Rights
Rosa Parks’ efforts for civil rights were recognized throughout her life. In 1979 the NAACP presented her with the Spingarn Medal, its highest distinction, and in 1980 gave her its prestigious Martin Luther King, Jr. Award.
She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in September 1996 and a Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. Time magazine also included her in its 1999 list of “The 20 Most Influential People of the 20th Century”.
After retiring, Parks wrote her autobiography and lived a mainly quiet life in Detroit, Michigan, where she passed away of natural causes in October 2005 at the age of 92. Her casket was placed in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol for two days. She was the only woman, the second African American and the second non–U.S. government official to lie in state at the Capitol, an honor typically reserved for U.S. presidents.