Rosa Parks Biography
Became Civil Rights Hero Overnight, Quietly Refused to Move, Actions Inspired Bus Boycott
According to the old saying, "some people are born to greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them." Greatness was certainly thrust upon Rosa Parks, but the modest former seamstress found herself equal to the challenge. Known as "the mother of the Civil Rights Movement," Parks almost single-handedly set in motion a veritable revolution in the southern United States, a revolution that would eventually secure equal treatment under the law for all black Americans. "For those who lived through the unsettling 1950s and 1960s and joined the civil rights struggle, the soft-spoken Rosa Parks was more, much more than the woman who refused to give up her bus seat to a White man in Montgomery, Alabama," wrote Richette L. Haywood in Jet. "[Hers] was an act that forever changed White America's view of Black people, and forever changed America itself."
Became Civil Rights Hero Overnight
From a modern perspective, Parks's actions on December 1, 1955, hardly seem extraordinary: tired after a long day's work, she refused to move from her seat in order to accommodate a white passenger on a city bus in Montgomery. At the time, however, her defiant gesture actually broke a law, one of many bits of Jim Crow legislation that relegated blacks to second-class citizenship. Overnight Rosa Parks became a symbol for hundreds of thousands of frustrated black Americans who suffered outrageous indignities in a racist society. As Lerone Bennett, Jr. wrote in Ebony, Parks was consumed not by the prospect of making history, but rather "by the tedium of survival in the Jim Crow South." The tedium had become unbearable, and Rosa Parks acted to change it. Then, she was an outlaw. She has since become a hero.
Parks was born Rosa McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama. When she was still a young child her parents separated, and she moved with her mother to Montgomery. There she grew up in an extended family that included her maternal grandparents and her younger brother, Sylvester. Montgomery, Alabama, was hardly a hospitable city for blacks in the 1920s and 1930s. As she grew up, Rosa was shunted into second-rate all-black schools, such as the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, from which she had to leave before graduating to help care for sick relatives. She also dealt daily with laws governing her behavior in public places. Ms. magazine contributor Eloise Greenfield noted that Rosa always detested having to drink from special water fountains and having to forgo lunch at the whites-only restaurants downtown. Still, wrote Greenfield, "with her mother's help, Rosa was able to grow up proud of herself and other black people, even while living with these rules … People should be judged by the respect they have for themselves and others, Mrs. McCauley said. Rosa grew up believing this."
At twenty Rosa married a barber named Raymond Parks in 1932. The couple both held jobs and enjoyed a modest degree of prosperity. Encouraged by her husband, Mrs. Parks completed her high school education in 1934. In her spare time, Mrs. Parks became active in the NAACP and the Montgomery Voters League, a group that helped blacks to pass a special test so they could register to vote. By the time she reached mid-life, Rosa Parks was no stranger to white intimidation. Like many other Southern blacks, she often boycotted the public facilities marked "Colored," walking up stairs rather than taking elevators, for instance. She had a special distaste for the city's public transportation, as did many of her fellow black citizens.
The Jim Crow rules for the public bus system in Montgomery almost defy belief today. Black customers had to enter the bus at the front door, pay the fare, exit the front door and climb aboard again at the rear door. Even though the majority of bus passengers were black, the front four rows of seats were always reserved for white customers. Bennett wrote: "It was a common sight in those days to see Black men and women standing in silence and silent fury over the four empty seats reserved for whites." Behind these seats was a middle section that blacks could use only if there was no white demand. However, if so much as one white customer needed a seat in this "no- man's land," all the blacks in that section had to move. Bennett concluded: "This was, as you can see, pure madness, and it caused no end of trouble and hard feeling." In fact, Parks herself was once thrown off a bus for refusing to endure the charade of entry by the back door. In the year preceding Parks's fateful ride, three other black women had been arrested for refusing to give their seats to white men. Still the system was firmly entrenched, and Parks would often walk to her home to spare herself the humiliation of the bus.
Quietly Refused to Move
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks had a particularly tiring day. She was employed as a seamstress at the Montgomery Fair department store, and she had spent the day pressing numerous pairs of pants. She has since admitted that her back and shoulders ached terribly that day—she was forty-two at the time—and she deliberately let one full bus pass in order to find a seat on the next one. The seat she eventually found was in the middle section of the bus, because the back was filled. A few stops further down the line, a white man got on and demanded a seat. The driver ordered Parks and three other black customers to move. The other riders did as they were told, but Parks quietly refused to give up her place. The driver threatened to call the police. Parks said: "Go ahead and call them."
Bennett wrote: "There then occurred one of those little vignettes that could have changed the course of history. The [police] officers asked the driver if he wanted to swear out a warrant or if he wanted them to let Rosa Parks go with a warning. The driver said he wanted to swear out a warrant, and this decision and the convergence of a number of historical forces sealed the death warrant of the Jim Crow South."
Parks was driven to the police station, booked, finger-printed, and jailed. She was also photographed as she was being fingerprinted, a snapshot that has since found its way into history textbooks. Parks was granted one telephone call, and she used it to contact E. D. Nixon, a prominent member of Montgomery's NAACP chapter. Nixon was properly outraged, but he also sensed that in Parks his community might have the perfect individual to serve as a symbol of Southern injustice. Nixon called a liberal white lawyer, Clifford Durr, who agreed to represent Parks. After consulting with the attorney, her husband, and her mother, Rosa Parks agreed to undertake a court challenge of the segregationist law that had led to her arrest.
Word of Parks's arrest spread quickly through Montgomery's black community, and several influential black leaders decided the time was ripe to try a boycott of the public transportation system. One of these leaders, the reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., used the mimeograph machine at his Baptist church to make 7,000 copies of a leaflet advertising the boycott. The message of the leaflet was plain: "Don't ride the bus to work, to town, to school, or any place Monday, December 5 … If you work, take a cab, or share a ride, or walk."
Actions Inspired Bus Boycott
The black boycott of Montgomery's city buses was almost universal on December 5, 1955. A meeting on the subject that evening drew an overflow crowd numbering in the thousands, and a decision was made to continue the boycott indefinitely. On Tuesday, December 6th, Parks was found guilty of failure to comply with a city ordinance and fined $14. She and her attorney appealed the ruling while the boycott wore on. Ebony correspondent Roxanne Brown wrote: "For 381 days, Blacks car-pooled and walked to work and church. Their unified effort not only helped put an end to Jim Crow sectioning on the buses, it was also financially devastating for the bus company. It was this monumental event—watched by the world—that triggered the modern-day Black Freedom Movement and made a living legend of Mrs. Parks."
Thrust into the limelight, Parks suddenly found her life opened to the public. Parks and her family received numerous threats and almost constant telephone harassment. The strain actually caused Raymond Parks to suffer a nervous breakdown. In 1957 Rosa and Raymond Parks (and Rosa's mother) moved north to Detroit, Michigan. If Rosa Parks was safer in Detroit, she was never quite allowed to recede into anonymity. As the years passed she was sought out repeatedly as a dignified spokesperson for the civil rights movement. A number of universities awarded her honorary degrees, and Detroit congressman John Conyers persuaded her to join his staff in 1965. In 1988, upon Parks' retirement from her job with Conyers, Roxanne Brown noted: "Thirty-two years after she attracted international attention for sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Mrs. Parks's ardent devotion to human rights still burns brightly, like a well-tended torch that ignites her spirit and calls her to service whenever she is needed."
Remained a Humble Leader
Age did not rob Rosa Parks of her beauty and grace, nor did it restrict her travels and activities. She continued to make some 25 to 30 personal appearances per year throughout her 70s and was a vocal opponent of apartheid in South Africa. Her crowning achievement, however, remains the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, which she founded in Detroit in 1987. The institute offers career training for 12- to 18-year-olds with special attention to education and motivation. "Too many young people are not staying in school and taking advantage of the opportunities they have," Parks told Ebony. "They're not motivated to learn what is necessary to get the good positions, the good jobs, to go into business for themselves."
In February of 1990 Parks received yet another round of adulation as she was honored at Washington's Kennedy Center on her seventy-seventh birthday. Tribute chairperson C. Delores Tucker praised Parks for her "beautiful qualities" of "dignity and indomitable faith that with God nothing can stop us." In typical fashion, Parks received the tribute with all due modesty—throughout the years, she took little credit for her role in the history of the civil rights movement. Asked to reveal the secret of her positive attitude, she told Ebony: "I find that if I'm thinking too much of my own problems, and the fact that at times things are not just like I want them to be, I don't make any progress at all. But if I look around and see what I can do, and go on with that, then I move on."
Meanwhile, awards in her honor continued to roll in. She received the prestigious Medal of Freedom Award from President Bill Clinton in 1996. Jet quoted the president at the awards ceremony: "When she sat down on the bus, she stood up for the American ideals of equality and justice and demanded that the rest of us do the same." In 1998 Parks received the first International Freedom Conductor Award given by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. A year later she was awarded the Detroit-Windsor International Freedom Festival Freedom Award for her contribution to the cause of freedom and peace. During the dedication Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer was quoted by PR Newswire as saying, "Her dignity and grace has inspired generations of freedom fighters and defenders of human rights."
Gave Back to Community Received Awards
In July of 1999 the U.S. Congress awarded Parks the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, the nation's highest civilian award. In accepting the award at a ceremony in the nation's capital presided over by President Bill Clinton, Parks said, as quoted Jet, "This medal is encouragement for all of us to continue until all people have equal rights." The first recipient of this award was George Washington. Other recipients include Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela. The following September, Parks was inducted in to the Alabama Academy of Honor, an organization that recognizes Alabama citizens for their contribution to the state. Later that same year she was awarded the first Governor's Medal of Honor for Extraordinary Courage from Alabama Governor Donald Seigelman.
In December of 2000 Troy State University in Montgomery, Alabama dedicated a library and museum in Parks's name. Despite frail health she was able to attend the ceremony thanks to a prominent African-American attorney who flew her there on his private jet. The museum features a replica of the bus she was sitting on that fateful day in December 1955 and recounts the conversation between Parks and the bus driver who demanded she give up her seat. Meanwhile, the actual bus where it all took place was bought by Dearborn, Michigan's Henry Ford Museum for $492,000 in 2001. Upon the museum's acquisition of the bus, Parks attended a private viewing where the museum pledged to restore the bus to its 1955 appearance, which it did by 2003. In January of 2002 Rosa Parks's former Alabama home was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2006, a federal building in Detroit was named in honor of Parks.
Film Legacy Lives on in Books
The message of Parks's life continues to be told through books and film. In 1992 she published a children's book entitled Rosa Parks: My Story. It is a chronology of her life leading up to the monumental day in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. The book is a historical reminder to children that the freedoms they enjoy today were hard won. She wrote in the book, "People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired but that wasn't true. I was not tired physically … I was not old … I was 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in." Five years later, she and author Jim Haskins, reissued the book for a younger audience. Full of colorful illustrations and age-appropriate definitions of concepts such as segregation and racism, the newly titled book, I Am Rosa Parks, allows children as young as four to grasp the importance of the civil rights movement.
In 2002 CBS released the television movie The Rosa Parks Story starring Angela Bassett in the title role. The film recounted her early life, the incident on the Montgomery bus in 1955, and her role in the civil rights movement, as well as her relationship with her husband Raymond Parks. "I chuckled many times about the courtship scene," Parks told Jet. Filmed in Alabama, it was the first film about her life made with her participation.
Despite her fame and prestige in her community, Parks had plenty of difficult experiences throughout the rest of her life. In September of 1994 a 28 year-old man broke into Parks's Detroit home and robbed and beat her. He was caught the next day. With characteristic grace, Parks was quoted in Jet as saying of the attack, "I regret very much that some of our people are in such a mental state that they would hurt and rob an older person." A few years later Parks found her name being used for a song title on the rap group OutKast's third album. She had not given her consent and in April of 1999 filed a lawsuit requesting her name removed from all OutKast products and asking for $25,000. In an ironic twist, the group hired the attorney for Martin Luther King Jr.'s estate to defend them. In a November 1999 decision that raised both public and press outrage, a judge ruled against Parks, stating that OutKast's use of her name was protected under the First Amendment. Parks's lawyers filed to reinstate her lawsuit in 2001, and the Supreme Court ruled in December 2003 that the suit could indeed be heard. OutKast was eventually dropped as a defendant, but in August 2004 a separate suit was filed against the record companies with which OutKast is affiliated and against stores that sold OutKast's records; a settlement was reached in 2005. Another case involving the misuse of her name started in 2000 when Parks discovered that a third party had registered the Internet domain name www.rosaparks.com and was offering it for sale. According to her attorney, quoted in PR Newswire, "We sent a cease and desist letter to the registered owner of the Web site and demanded the transfer of ownership to Mrs. Parks. The transfer is now being made."
Nearly half a century after making a decision to continue sitting on a segregated Montgomery, Alabama bus, Rosa Parks had developed into a legend. Though she was oft quoted as saying that she didn't set out that day in December 1955 to make history, she did. And in doing so, she also changed it. "She sat down in order that we might stand up," Rev. Jesse Jackson said in an interview with the New York Times upon the news of her death in October of 2005. "Paradoxically, her imprisonment opened the doors for our long journey to freedom." Parks died on October 24, 2005; her legacy continues on and is felt every day by Americans of all backgrounds, races, and creeds.
(With Jim Haskins) Rosa Parks: My Story, Dial Books, 1992.
(With Gregory J. Reed) Dear Mrs. Parks: A Dialogue with Today's Youth, Lee & Low Books, 1996.
(with Jim Haskins) I Am Rosa Parks, Dial Books for Young Readers, 1997.
Brinkley, Douglas G. Rosa Parks, Penguin, 2000.
Grant, Callie Smith, Free Indeed: African-American Christians and the Struggle for Equality, Barbour, 2003.
Greenfield, Eloise, Rosa Parks, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973.
Kohl, Herbert, She Would Not Be Moved: How We Tell the Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, New Press, 2005.
Parks, Rosa, with Gregory J. Reed, Quiet Strength: The Faith, the Hope, and the Heart of a Woman Who Changed a Nation, Zondervan Publishing House, 1994.
Roop, Peter, and Connie Roop, Take a Stand, Rosa Parks, Scholastic, 2005.
Black Enterprise, February 1993, p. 24.
Detroit Free Press, October 14, 2004.
Ebony, August 1971; September 1977; February 1988; January 2006.
Entertainment Weekly, December 19, 2003.
Essence, May 1985.
Jet, March 5, 1990; September 19, 1994, p. 22; September 23, 1996, p. 4; July 5, 1999, p. 32; December 13, 1999, p. 4; December 18, 2000, p. 8; September 18, 2000, p. 24; December 17, 2001, p. 10; February 25, 2002, p. 58; May 2, 2005, p. 17; November 21, 2005, p. 6.
Maclean's, August 3, 1998, p. 22.
Ms., August 1974.
Newsweek, November 12, 1979; December 26, 2005, p. 122.
New York Times, October 25, 2005, p. A1; October 26, 2005, p. A20.
PR Newswire, June 30, 1999; September 19, 2000; April 16, 2001; October 26, 2001.
Publishers Weekly, January 20, 1997, p. 402.
Smithsonian, December 2005, p. 34.
Vanity Fair, January 2006, p. 89.
Troy State University Rosa Parks Library and Museum, http://montgomery.troy.edu/museum (March 15, 2006).
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