By: Victoria Yates
Rosa Louise McCauley was born February 4th 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama to James McCauley and Leona Edwards, a carpenter and a teacher. She was a small child and was often ill during her childhood, suffering particularly from chronic tonsillitis. When her parents separated she moved with her mother to Pine level outside of Montgomery, Alabama, where the family lived with her maternal grandparents on a farm. It was here that Parks began her lifelong membership in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Until she was 11, Parks was enrolled in the Industrial School for Girls where she took academic and vocational courses. She went on to secondary school briefly before being forced to drop out in order to look after her grandmother, and eventually mother, when they became ill.
Racism had been a regular part of Parks’ earlier years, with the use of school buses exclusively for white children and the presence of the Klu Klux Klan forming a distinct sense of race differentiation. In 1932 Rosa married Raymond Parks who was a barber from Montgomery, active also in anti-racist groups such as the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the oldest and most influential civil rights organizations in the US). He was also at the time collecting money for the Scottsboro Boys (a group of black men falsely accused of raping two white women). In 1933 Parks finished her high school studies at the encouragement of her husband, a relatively rare occurrence at the time given that only 7% of African Americans held a high school diploma. Parks even succeeded in registering to vote after her third attempt.
Parks became a member of the NAACP in 1943, the only woman there, and took on the position of volunteer secretary to the president of the Montgomery chapter. She held this position until 1957. Soon after 1944 Parks took on a job briefly at the Maxwell Air Force Base, an experience she later credited as opening her eyes as it was a federally owned area where racial segregation was not allowed. Parks was also a housekeeper and Seamstress for the Durrs, a liberal white couple who encouraged, and eventually sponsored, Parks to attend the Highlander Folk School (in 1955) which educated on workers’ rights and racial equality in Tennessee.
The infamous segregation of the buses was something that had raised protests before. The front four rows of the bus were reserved for white passengers -however the sign indicating where the sections ended was movable, meaning that there were no fixed places for the black passengers and that their section could in fact be removed altogether. A further sign of segregation came when the front section was full of white passengers, a black individual would be able to pay for a ticket but would then be forced to disembark and reenter from the rear entrance. Often times the bus would drive off before they made it onboard. This was something Parks experienced first in 1943 (in a bus driven by the same driver, James Blake, whom she would famously come to refuse). When exiting the bus so as to reenter it from the other door, Parks dropped her purse, sitting briefly in a chair reserved for the white clientele so as to pick it up. Enraged, Blake drove off before Parks could re-embark, forcing her to walk 8miles home in the rain.
On the 1st of December 1955 Parks boarded a bus at Cleveland Avenue around 6pm. She paid and sat in the first row of the ‘colored’ section of the bus. The bus eventually filled up and Blake ordered those on the first row to move so as to allow the white passengers a seat. Parks recalls the moment when he ordered them to move, stating “I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.” Three of the four passengers obliged but Parks refused to be moved, Blake called the police and had Parks arrested. Parks felt this moment was a turning point, believing a true sense of change was not too far in the future.
The next evening Parks was bailed out by Clifford Durr and her old boss from the NAACP E.D. Nixon. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was announced in black churches in the area on the 4th of December, those attending agreeing unanimously to continue the boycott until they were treated with the level of courtesy they desired, until the middle of the bus was handled on a first-come basis, and until black bus drivers were hired.
At a meeting on the 5th discussing boycott strategies the group formed a new organization that would lead the effort. They called it the Montgomery Improvement Association and elected the relative newcomer Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the President. Although not the first to refuse to give up their seat, Parks was seen as the ideal figurehead for the movement (as opposed to a 15 year old Claudette Colvin who had made a similar stand earlier in the year, shortly before falling pregnant to a married man). On the day of Parks’ trial, 35,000 leaflets on the boycott were distributed. Commuters stood by the boycott, despite rain, choosing to either walk or take black operated cabs who charged the same as the bus. The boycott lasted 381 days until the law requiring segregation in buses was lifted.
Parks played a huge part in internationalizing the awareness of the nature of life for African Americans at that time. After her role in the boycott Parks became an icon for the Civil Rights movement. This didn’t come without sacrifice; Parks lost her job and her husband quit after his boss ordered him not to discuss his wife’s legal case. In 1957 Parks left Montgomery, largely to find work but also because of disagreements with King and other leaders of the ailing civil rights movement. She moved to Virginia and worked as a seamstress until 1965 when she became a secretary for the African-American US Representative John Conyers.
Later in life Parks helped found the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation for college-bound High School graduates, and also the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development in honor of her husband (who had died in 1977). The institute is responsible for the “Pathways to Freedom” bus tours that introduce young people to important civil rights and Underground Railroad sites. In 1992 Parks published an autobiography.
And on the 24th of October 2005, at the age of 92, Rosa Parks died in Detroit. Her death sparked nationwide signs of mourning, with city buses in Montgomery and Detroit having their front seats reserved with black ribbons in honor of Parks until her funeral. At her memorial, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke, stating that without the actions of Parks she would probably never have gotten to her position in government. Parks was driven in a bus similar to that on which she made her stand and laid to rest in the Capitol Rotunda (the first woman and second African American to receive the honor).
Parks was a remarkable woman; her courage and conviction sparked a wave of change and led a generation in a new direction. Few can be seen to have made such a vital contribution to the alteration of the rights of so many, a true icon and leader of change.