In honor of Black History Month, we’d like to celebrate the life and legacy of Rosa Parks. Famous for her legendary act of protest on a Montgomery bus, Mrs. Parks was part of a generation that made great strides in Civil Rights. Her own personal contributions paved the way for landmark legislation that helped end segregation and take a closer step to true equality.
Rosa Louise McCauley was born on February 14, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama. Her parents separated when she was a toddler, and Rosa grew up living with her mother and grandparents on her grandparents’ farm. Both her grandmother and grandfather were former slaves. They had lived as property and they saw the limitations on the freedom they had won. The family raised Rosa to believe in her own worth, and they taught her to speak out against segregation.
Rosa grew up going to segregated schools. She suffered the injustices of Jim Crow laws. Despite this, she continued to work to create the best life possible for herself. She performed well in school but had to leave in her junior year to care for her dying grandmother. Rosa got a job at a factory and didn’t finish her high school education until several years later when she had married Raymond Parks, a barber and NAACP member.
Civil Rights Work
Many know the story of Rosa’s fateful bus ride, but they don’t always realize that Mrs. Parks had already been a figure in the Civil Rights movement. A member of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, Rosa worked as the chapter’s youth leader and as secretary to NAACP President E.D. Nixon.
Mrs. Parks fully recognized the risk associated with being an outspoken member of the Civil Rights movement. Early in her life, her family had run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan. As an adult, Rosa drew the concern of her husband, who didn’t want to see his wife suffer the repercussions of her activism. But Rosa knew that the cause was worthwhile, that her people were worthwhile, and she continued to serve.
The Bus Arrest
Mrs. Parks frequented the Montgomery bus system, although many African Americans in her time hated the system. They felt being forced to sit in the back of the bus was demeaning. Before her famous arrest, she had already had run-ins with the bus driver. According to history.com:
When Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in 1955, it wasn’t the first time she’d clashed with driver James Blake. Parks stepped onto his very crowded bus on a chilly day 12 years earlier, paid her fare at the front, then resisted the rule in place for blacks to disembark and re-enter through the back door. She stood her ground until Blake pulled her coat sleeve, enraged, to demand her cooperation. Parks left the bus rather than give in.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa was seated in the middle of the bus, in the first row designated to African Americans. Under Montgomery law, segregation was enforced on public transit, with signs designating where people of color were allowed to sit. The bus was full, and the driver noticed that white patrons were standing. He moved the sign backward one row and instructed Mrs. Parks and three others to give up their seats. The other three riders complied, but Rosa, tired of being treated as a second-class citizen, refused to stand. This action was actually supported by a lesser-known Montgomery law that said no person of any color could be made to stand, but the law was rarely enforced.
The bus driver called the police and Rosa was arrested.
Personal Fallout From the Arrest
On the surface, Mrs. Park’s action could have simply been one more injustice in a world full of them. She stood trial on December 5th in a 30-minute hearing, was found guilty of violating a local ordinance, and was fined.
The attention the case garnered initially cost both Rosa and her husband their jobs. Unable to find work due to their new notoriety, they moved to Detroit. Rosa was able to start a successful career with this change in location, serving as a secretary and receptionist for a U.S. Representative.
Though Rosa wasn’t the first African American to stand up for her rights, she was one of the first whose unjust treatment sparked a movement. After Rosa’s case became public, her brothers and sisters boycotted the Montgomery bus line on the day of her trial. Seeing the impact of a one-day boycott, local leaders called on the community to continue the boycott until real change was made.
They created the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), of which Martin Luther King, Jr. became president. This boycott began to severely cripple the transit system financially. Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public transportation was unconstitutional, and the MIA celebrated success.
Mrs. Parks became a phenomenon for her willingness to stand up for herself. She sparked a movement that continues to impact African Americans today, inspired other renowned Civil Rights leaders to take action, and lived her life continuing to fight for freedom.
Death and Legacy
Mrs. Parks passed away on October 24, 2005, after suffering for years from dementia. Her lifetime of accomplishments earned her the Spingarn Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and many other awards. Parks and memorials across the U.S. bear her name as a symbol of what can be accomplished when you stand up against injustice.
As the granddaughter of slaves, Rosa Parks faced a society that dismissed her as a black woman. She showed that society doesn’t assign power. It comes from within. And when one person uses their own power, it can inspire others and revolutionize society itself.