The struggle to achieve equality for all Americans, regardless of race or gender, has been ongoing since the end of the Civil War. On the surface, the Civil War was fought to free millions of black slaves from forced servitude in the American South. In reality, many argue that the war was really fought to preserve the unity of the nation. Since the conclusion of the war, countless individuals have emerged to lead the fight for civil equality.
Rosa Parks was one of the modern heroes of the Civil Rights Movement in the US, inspiring millions through the action of refusing to surrender her bus seat to a white person. With that one simple act of defiance, Parks helped spark the Montgomery Bus Boycott and provided the impetus for numerous other efforts to end segregation in the US.
Rosa Parks was born on February 4, 1913 as Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama. Parks was born, by coincidence, just one month before the death of another leading woman in the push for equal rights for African-Americans, Harriet Tubman. Her mother, Leona, was a teacher and her father, James, a carpenter.
Parks came from a family with a mixed heritage. Though her immediate relatives were of African descent, she had a great-grandfather who was Scots-Irish and a great-grandmother of Native American descent. At a young age, her parents separated. She moved with her mother to her maternal grandparent’s farm outside Montgomery, Alabama.
She grew up in the South at a time when Jim Crow laws disenfranchised African-Americans. The former Confederate states passed numerous constitutional changes and electoral laws that imposed a system of segregation whereby black and white citizens used separate facilities. As a child, she was forced to walk to school like all black children, while the white children rode buses to their schools.
The system of segregation persisted throughout her youth and into her adulthood. Segregation promised separate but equal facilities. In practice, however, black citizens were viewed as second class and had access to inferior facilities. The rules applied to public facilities and services, including retail stores, restaurants, and public transportation. The system that held Parks down as a child would suffer its fatal blow by her hand.
Civil Rights Involvement
Parks became active in the Civil Rights movement following her marriage to Raymond Parks. Raymond was a barber in Montgomery and a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). When they met, Raymond was working to raise funds for the NAACP on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of young black men accused of raping two white women.
In December 1943, she took on her own role in the NAACP and joined the Civil Rights Movement in the process. She started as a secretary in the local chapter, a role she held until 1957. She spent many years working alongside E.D. Nixon, even though he believed that “women don’t need to be nowhere but in the kitchen.”
Montgomery Bus Boycott
The city of Montgomery had a city ordinance in place dating back to 1900 that segregated bus passengers by race. Black residents were forced to sit in the back of the bus, while white residents were allowed to sit in the front. When the law was passed, there was no specific wording that required seated passengers, black or white, to give up their seats if the bus was crowded and no seats were available.
However, the law did give conductors and drivers the power to assign seats. Over time, that power grew into a custom of forcing black passengers to give up their seats to white passengers in the event that no seats were available in the white section of the bus. Fast forward 55 years to the evening of Thursday, December 1, 1955, and Rosa Parks was about to enter the history books.
After working a full day at her job, Parks boarded a Montgomery city bus around six in the evening. She paid her fare and took a seat in the section of the bus labeled for “coloured” passengers. As the bus continued along its route, the seats in the white section filled up. When the bus reached its stop in front of the Empire Theater, several white passengers were already standing in the front of the bus.
The driver got up from his seat and ordered four black passengers, Parks included, to get up and surrender their seats to white passengers. Three men complied, but Parks did not. She initially slid to the window seat in her row, but the driver insisted that he would call the police if she did not get up. Parks remained seated and was arrested for the simple crime of refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger.
Over the course of time, Parks’ story from that day has been convoluted. Many school textbooks tell the story of a tired old woman who refused to give up her seat. Parks set the record straight in her own biography, providing the following narrative of that day:
Local African-American leaders and NAACP officials arranged a one-day boycott of the Montgomery transit system on December 5, 1955. African-American residents were encouraged to avoid the bus by all means necessary. Some stayed home from work and school, while others carpooled, took taxis operated by black drivers, and even walked to avoid the bus system. The Montgomery Bus Boycott went on for 381 days, and eventually the financial loss to the transit system and downtown businesses was so severe that the city relented. The segregation of public buses was lifted on December 20, 1956.
Life after the Boycott
Although she was now front and centre as a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, her life was far from easy. In the aftermath of her arrest, Parks was fired from her department store job. Her husband was fired from his job as well after his boss forbade him from discussing his wife’s activism or court case. Neither Rose nor Raymond were able to find work in Montgomery again, and the couple eventually moved to Detroit, Michigan.
Once settled in Detroit, Rosa took a job as the secretary and receptionist in the office of US Representative, John Conyer. During her final years, she served on the board of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and even founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development in 1987.
One of the institute’s notable activities includes shedding light on the dark past of slavery and segregation in the US. The organisation operates bus tours known as “Pathways to Freedom.” The tours introduce younger generations to civil rights sites across the country, as well as Underground Railroad stops.
Parks is remembered today for playing a vital role in the Civil Rights Movement in America. She called attention to the lack of equality brought about by segregation in the South. She was recognised by TIME magazine in 1999 on the list of the “20 Most Influential People of the 20th Century.