Rosa Parks: Mother of the Modern Civil Rights Movement

Rosa Parks

Civil rights icon – Rosa Parks

The date was December 1, 1955, and the modern civil rights movement in the U.S. was just about to lift off. At the forefront of it was none other than Rosa Parks- a 42-year old woman. Parks defied all odds and refused giving up her seat for a white male passenger on a Cleveland Avenue bus in Montgomery. Unfortunately, Parks got arrested and fined in court for her defiance.

Her undue punishment set the stage for one of the largest and longest public boycotts in America’s history.  Parks’ life-long work and campaign resulted in the squashing of several oppressive and institutionalized laws against black people in America. She would go on to fight for racial equality over the next half a century. Her dedication to the collective aspirations of the black community earned her top awards from the White House as well as the U.S. Congress.

ALSO READ: 14 Major Events of the Civil Rights Movement

Let’s journey through one of America’s most defining period of the 20th century. There, we will explore in details the history and motivations of America’s First Lady of Civil Rights: Rosa Parks.

Growing up and Early Life

Born Rosa Louise McCauley on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama, Rosa Parks was like any other kid living in a very chaotic period of America. James McCauley and Leona McCauley were her parents. The McCauley family was partly Cherokee-Creek. James was a carpenter while Leona was a teacher. Rosa had a younger brother called Sylvester.

As a result of her parent’s separation, Rosa, her mother, and brother relocated to her grandparents at Pine Level, Alabama. She and her brother had some really good memories living on her grandparents’ farm. Rosa and her family were devoted African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) members. As we shall see below, all those memories were ruined by atrocious acts of violence and hate against African Americans.

When Rosa was 11, she attended a girls’ school in Montgomery called the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls. Prior to that Rosa was at an African-American children school where her mother taught. What was interesting about this industrial school is that it inculcated a lot of liberal ideas into the young girls. The foundations she acquired during her stay at the school would live with Rosa for the rest of her life. Her mother, Leona, was bent on ensuring that Rosa and Sylvester had the proper mentality and education right from childhood.

It was around this same time that the young Rosa got her first candid experience with racism. The state of Alabama, like any other former Confederate state in the U.S. at that time, had deep racial tensions that were about to create greater havoc. The Ku Klux Klan was an ever-present nightmare to Rosa and her family. Threats of lynching and house burning were a common phenomenon back then. However, none of this could ruffle Rosa. She remained focused and fearless despite her school and community centers receiving significantly low funding. Those two traits of hers are what took her places.

Rosa always wondered why the city made young black students walk to school while the white kids all rode on buses. She also dreaded the thought of waking up to a burning house. Arson and lynching were pretty much common occurrences in Alabama. As a matter of fact, her school, the Montgomery Industrial School, was torched twice. The arsonists did this because the school received funding and teachers from northern states. Eventually, fear became something Rosa had to overcome at a very young age.

Beneath all of those emotions, Rosa felt the burning need to do something about her situation. Following in her mother’s footsteps, Rosa enrolled at the Alabama State Teachers College. Unfortunately, she did not get to finish the school because she had to cater for her ailing grandmother. Also, her mother was at that time very ill.

Marriage to Raymond Parks

Around the age of 19, she met Raymond Parks. Raymond was a 29-year old barber in Alabama. The two very similar-minded people fell in love and got married. All that Rosa and Raymond wanted to do was to help the African American community. Raymond was her rock and shield.

One year into the marriage, Rosa went back to school and successfully got her high school diploma. Soon, the young Rosa, now a wife, got a seamstress job at a local store. She had to walk a very fine line and not get on the wrong side of Alabama’s extreme segregation laws. Regardless, she and Raymond still wanted to inspire the African-American community. She was appalled by the segregation that took place in all spheres of her society. She started volunteering at hospitals, schools, and churches.

Years at the NAACP and Activism

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was a place that Rosa felt she could really pursue a worthy goal of helping people. She was initially introduced to this association by Raymond.

At first, Raymond did not support the idea of Rosa being part of the NAACP because he was concerned for her safety. However, Rosa did not back down; she joined the local branch of the NAACP in 1943. For the next 12 years, she served as the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP. She also served as an aid to Edgar Daniel Nixon, the local chapter president. Their chapter was involved in so many social relief programs that catered for victims and family members of people that had been beaten up, raped, lynched and wrongfully convicted. She and her husband helped to raise money to cover the legal fees of the black men that were alleged to have raped two white women.

At her part-time job, she met the Durrs. The Durrs played a crucial role in Rosa’s life. She did housekeeping and some seamstress job for the Durrs. They were very liberal and supported Rosa in pursuing another vocational training at the Highlander Folk School in 1955.

Rosa’s efforts, although impressive, felt like a drop in the ocean. How could she fight something that was institutionalized? There were powers that vehemently resisted all the works of the NAACP. Time and time again, they continued to hit a brick wall. Schools, buses, restaurants, hotels, water fountains, libraries and a plethora of other public places had tags such as “white-only section” and “Colored only section”.

Rosa Parks felt it was her calling to do something about those unjust laws. In an act of defiance, she organized a group of black students to enter a train with white students at the same time. The train was not segregated; however, blacks and whites had to form different lines when getting on the train.  The Freedom Train rally was just one of the numerous activisms that Rosa took part during her early years at NAACP.

In November 1955, Rosa joined a mass rally that condemned the heinous murder of a black teenager called Emmet Till. Emmet was murdered in Mississippi in August 1955. She also took part in meetings that discussed other high profile murders of George W. Lee and Lamar Smith. These activists put their lives on the line and fought for the rights of African Americans.

The bus incident of 1955

Rosa Parks

Rosa famously declined to give up her seat on board bus number 2857

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks closed from her tailoring work at a local department store and as usual, picked a Cleveland Avenue bus home. In spite of the humiliating “Jim Crow” (segregation) laws, the municipal bus lines had about 70 percent of its patronage coming from the black community. Besides, it was not as if the blacks had any other transportation options. Majority of them had no private automobiles at that time.

In Rosa’s case, the bus that she boarded on that fateful pre-winter day was bus number 2857.  The driver of the bus was James F. Blake. Once on board, Rosa sat herself, as usual, at the front row of the “colored-only section”. After several stops, the bus had gotten full and there was a white male that had no seat because the “white” section was full. The driver of the bus, Blake, insisted that Rosa and 3 other black people in the “colored” section relinquish their seats. In effect, Blake was trying to add extra rows for the “white” section. The three other black people dutifully obliged. But the resolute and fierce Rosa Park refused moving an inch. She felt that it was an unjust instruction and hence did not give up her seat.

After a brief exchange of words, Blake called in the police. The police took Parks off the bus and charged her for civil disobedience. Rosa Park got arrested on that day and charged for the violation of Montgomery ordinance on segregation. Chapter 6, Section 11 of the city’s code allowed for drivers to forcefully remove blacks to make room for white passengers.

In jail, Rosa made a call to her husband who came to bail her out. Her colleague at the NAACP, E.D. Nixon, and Clifford Durr were also present when she was bailed out. Rosa’s arrest sparked a flurry of angst and disgust among the black community. It almost felt like it was the last straw that broke their backs. Her arrest also presented the NAACP an opportunity to register their grievances in the public.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott

As stated above, about 70 percent of the commuters that used the metropolis bus lines were African Americans. Nixon had to make a move, but not without Rosa Parks. The two of them kicked started what would later be called “the Montgomery Bus Boycott”. Four days after her arrest, the NAACP, along with other activists, successfully printed out more than 35,000 flyers. The flyers called for people to boycott the metropolis’ bus lines on Monday. Black schools, churches, libraries, and other community groups were all on board. And this time around, the ride that they were about to embark on was not going to stop. Rosa Parks would serve as their driver. The first group to side with the boycott was the Women’s Political Council (WPC).  At the helm of the WPC was Jo Ann Robinson, an Alabama civil rights activist and a teacher at the Alabama State College.

The court handed Rosa Parks $100 fine on December 5, 1955. She also had to pay $4 in court fees. The verdict incensed the black community. The support Rosa received was enormous. E.D. Nixon soon formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). The association organized the boycott that officially began on December 4, 1955. At the helm of affairs of the MIA was Martin Luther King Jr. himself. Back then, Dr. King was an upcoming pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

MIA and NAACP made sure that they pursued the case right up to the U.S. Supreme Court. The MIA civil rights attorney, Fred Gray, served as the plaintiffs’ legal representative in the case that was popularly referred to as Browder v. Gayle (1956). The plaintiffs in the case were Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, Jeanetta Reese, and Claudette Colvin.

Amidst the legal battles, the Bus Boycott was still in motion, growing ever stronger. Montgomery was plunged to the verge of utter chaos. Some members of the Klan became more aggressive. Their spineless attacks and intimidation increased by an alarming rate. Rosa, Nixon, and King all came under severe forms of attack. Bombs were thrown into the houses of Nixon and King.

Rosa kept it together all throughout the trial. Also, the Klan’s violence did nothing to halt the boycotters. Soon, the loss of African American commuters started to take a huge toll on the revenue of the municipality. Blacks either carpooled to work or even walked miles to work. A number of taxis operated by blacks sprung up. They charged virtually the same fares as the public buses.

The blacks in Montgomery were not going to back down until the appalling segregation bus laws were eliminated. Also, there was an outpouring of love and solidarity from other U.S. states. The civil rights movement made the boycott their focal point.

Just as the NAACP and the MIA were hoping, the Supreme Court passed its verdict on November 13, 1956. After close to a year since Parks’ defiance, the civil rights movement succeeded in getting the segregation laws on public transportation abolished.  The Supreme Court declared that those laws violated the rights of African Americans.

Consequences of the Supreme Court’s verdict

On December 21, 1956, the bus boycotters as a sign of good faith discontinued their protest upon receiving the Court’s written order. The boycott lasted for 381 days. However, it was not all nice and rosy for Rosa Parks. As a result of her actions, her employers decided to terminate her employment. She was also racially abused, harassed and denigrated for some years. She received several death threats as well.

Nevertheless, Rosa continued to fight for the cause of civil rights in both her state and other U.S. states. The victory she had just won was only for public transportation. She believed that there was more work that she could do for African American communities across the U.S.

Greatest African-American Civil Rights Activists of All Time and their Achievements

Parks’ time in Detroit, Michigan

In 1957, Rosa moved to Detroit with her husband. She secured a job as an administrative assistant in the office of U.S. Representative, John Conyers. Rosa would go on to work in that office for about 20 years. Before that, Parks and her husband stayed briefly in Hampton, Virginia. She had a part-time job as a hostess at the Hampton Institute.

The death threats never ceased, however. Parks had also fallen out with other leaders of the civil rights movement. Parks disagreed in the approach that those leaders deployed in their fight for social and political justice.

Up until her retirement, Rosa bemoaned the existence of Klan members and its rise. Rosa worked with a host of Black Power movement members. She went on several inter-state trips to offer guidance and support to black community organizations. She also collaborated extensively with political prisoners in the U.S.

Another issue that was of concern to Rosa was the number of homeless black people on the street. She used her office as an aide to John Conyers to promote fair housing in Detroit. Rosa Parks always believed that the Detroit riot in 1967 was the result of unfair and discriminatory housing policies.

Additionally, she featured extensively in various marches across the U.S. Examples of some of the organizations and marches that she worked with were the Lowndes County Freedom, the Selma-to-Montgomery Marches. She would go on to create awareness about police brutality. She did so by collaborating with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Also, she became a key stakeholder that helped to resolve the Algiers Motel incident. The incident involved the sad deaths of three black men at the hands of police during the 1967 riots in Detroit.

During her time in Detroit, Rosa lost her husband, brother, and mother within the space of three years (1977 to 1979). All three of them died from cancer.

Prior to her retirement in 1988, Rosa Parks established the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development in 1987. The institute is famed for helping the youth across Detroit cope with school and other issues. Furthermore, they go on bus tours across the country to sensitize people about civil rights.

Retirement and later life

Rosa Parks

Rosa continued her support for civil rights movements even after she retired.

Even when she retired, Rosa still continued to work and give speeches to push the cause of the American civil rights movement. She lent her support to the formation of the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation. The foundation works to provide financial assistance and counseling to bright but needy high school leavers that are about to go to college.

Also, Rosa was a member of the board of Advocates for Planned Parenthood. She spent a lot of time writing as well. An autobiography in 1990 titled: “Rosa Parks: My Story” was written by her. Following that, she wrote a memoir about her faith in 1995. The title of the memoir was “The Quiet Strength”.

Around the turn of the 1990s, her health began to deteriorate. She suffered from dementia as well. Earlier, she also suffered recurring pain as a result of falling down on an icy sidewalk. Before that Parks suffered from an ulcer.

On August 30, 1994, she went through a bit of trauma when Joseph Skipper, an African American man, robbed her at her apartment. Skipper was eventually apprehended by the neighborhood watchmen. At the time of the incident, Rosa was 81 years old.

Rosa Parks’ Death

On October 24, 2005, in Detroit, Rosa Louise Parks passed away due to natural causes. At the time of her death, she was 92 years. She never amassed a huge fortune. Most of the money she made was given back to organizations and dreams that she believed in. She had no children, but she was survived by her sister-in-law and a dozen nieces and nephews. Her family attended the ceremony at the Capitol Rotunda. Rosa Parks was laid in honor there. This made her the first ever woman and second African American to be bestowed this honor. About 50,000 people attended the ceremony to see her casket.

Her funeral rites lasted for 7 hours at Detroit. She was finally buried at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the chapel’s mausoleum. This chapel was later renamed the Rosa L. Parks Freedom Chapel.

The then U.S. President George Bush ordered that all flags in the U.S. and abroad be flown at half-staff on her funeral.

Recognition and Honors Received

Rosa Parks was one of the most decorated African American of the 20th century. Aside from being honored posthumously at the Rotunda (usually the preserve of U.S. Presidents), Rosa Parks’ name can be found on several streets and buildings in America.

The 12th Street in Detroit got renamed “Rosa Parks Boulevard” in 1976. The NAACP in 1979 presented her its highest honor called the Spingarn Medal.  In 1983, she got inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.  Seven years later, in 1990, Rosa Parks was in South Africa to celebrate the release of Nelson Mandela.

In 1994, she was given honorary doctorates from the Florida State University in Tallahassee and Soka University in Japan.

The 1990s also saw Rosa Parks receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in our nation. The presentation was done by President Bill Clinton in 1996. This is the highest honor any civilian can receive in the United States. Three years after this executive honor, the U.S. Congress bestowed on her its highest honor in the form of the Congressional Gold Medal. The medal had the words:  “Mother of the Modern Day Civil Rights Movement”.

Posthumously, Rosa Parks was honored with a statue at the U.S. Capitol. This made her the first African-American woman to achieve this honor. The exact location of this statue is at the National Statuary Hall, Washington D.C.

In 2010, the Grand Rapids plaza in Michigan was named Rosa Parks Circle. Also, California and Missouri annually mark the “Rosa Parks Day” in commemoration of Rosa Parks on February 4. In Ohio and Oregon, a similar commemoration and remembrance takes place annually on December 1.

FAQs about Rosa Parks

Here are some basic questions and answers about one of the iconic figures in the American Civil Rights Movement.

What did Rosa Parks do?

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the “colored section” to a white passenger, after the “white section” was filled. This act of defiance and her subsequent arrest became a pivotal event in the Civil Rights Movement.

Why did she refuse to give up her seat?

Parks once explained that she was tired of giving in and decided to stand up for her rights. Her refusal was not because she was physically tired, but rather she was tired of the constant mistreatment and racial injustice.

What was the result of her refusal?

Her arrest led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where African Americans refused to ride city buses in Montgomery to protest segregated seating. The boycott lasted 381 days and ended with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional.

Was Rosa Parks the first person to refuse to give up her seat?

No, she wasn’t the first. Others, like Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith, had also refused to give up their seats on segregated buses prior to Parks. However, Parks’ act gained significant attention and is often highlighted because of the wide-scale response it initiated.

What happened to her after the bus incident?

After the incident, Parks faced threats and lost her job. She and her family eventually moved to Detroit, Michigan, where she continued her activism and worked for many years in the office of Congressman John Conyers.

Did Rosa Parks have any affiliations with civil rights groups?

Yes, she was a secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and had been involved in civil rights activities long before her famous act of defiance.

When did Rosa Parks pass away?

She passed away on October 24, 2005.

How is she remembered today?

Rosa Parks is often referred to as the “mother of the civil rights movement.” She has been recognized with numerous awards and honors, both in her lifetime and posthumously. There are schools, streets, and libraries named after her, and her life and legacy continue to inspire many around the world.


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