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Rosa Parks: Mother of the Civil Rights Movement

“My desires were to be free as soon as I learned that there had been slavery of human beings.”

[dropcap size=small]R[/dropcap]osa Parks was nationally recognized as the “mother of the civil rights movement” in America. Her refusal to surrender her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus on December 1, 1955, ignited the US civil rights movement and made her an international icon of resistance to racial segregation. The United States Congress called her “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement”. Her birthday, February 4, and the day she was arrested, December 1, have both become Rosa Parks Day, commemorated in California and Missouri (February 4), and Ohio and Oregon (December 1). She was voted by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most Influential people of the 20th century. Parks received more than forty-three honorary doctorate degrees, hundreds of plaques, certificates, citations, awards and keys to many cities. Among them are the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, the UAW’s Social Justice Award, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Non – Violent Peace Prize and the Rosa Parks Peace Prize in 1994, Stockholm Sweden, to name a few. She also received the medal of freedom, the highest award given to a civilian citizen.

Rosa Parks was born Rosa Louise McCauley on February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama, the first child of James and Leona Edwards McCauley. She was small as a child and suffered poor health with chronic tonsillitis. When her parents separated,  her mother took Rosa and her younger brother Sylvester to live with her maternal grandparents in Pine Level,  just outside the state capital, Montgomery. Her family supported Marcus Garvey and Rosa was raised to believe that she had a right to be respected, and to demand that respect. However, she recounted that her beloved grandmother worried about her “talking biggety to [whyte] folks.” Once her grandmother grew angry when a young Rosa recounted picking up a brick to challenge a whyte bully. Rosa told her grandmother: “I would rather be lynched than live to be mistreated and not be allowed to say ‘I don’t like it.’ ”

Determined that Rosa would be well educated, her mother sent her to Miss White’s school for girls, a private institution. After finishing Miss White’s School, Rosa went on to Alabama State Teacher’s College High School but dropped out in order to care for her grandmother, who later died. As Rosa prepared to return to Alabama State Teacher’s College, her mother also became ill, therefore, she continued to take care of their home and care for her mother while her brother, Sylvester, worked outside of the home.

Rosa received her high school diploma in 1934, after her marriage to Raymond Parks, December 18, 1932. Raymond, who was born in Alabama, Randolph County, February 12, 1903, received little formal education due to racial segregation, but he encouraged Rosa to finish her high school studies, at a time when less than 7% of African Americans had a high school diploma. Rosa described Raymond Parks as the first activist she had ever met. He was a member of the local Montgomery NAACP chapter, and, when she learned that women were welcome at the meetings, she attended. In the late 1940s Rosa Parks became its first secretary.

In 1944, in her capacity as secretary, she investigated the gang-rape of Recy Taylor, a Black woman from Abbeville, Alabama. Rosa Parks and other civil rights activists organized the “Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor”, launching what the Chicago Defender called “the strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade.”

In the 1940s,  the Parks became members of the Voters’ League. Sometime soon after 1944, Rosa Parks held a brief job at Maxwell Air Force Base, which, despite its location in Montgomery, Alabama, did not permit racial segregation because it was federal property. She rode on its integrated trolley. Speaking to her biographer, she noted, “You might just say Maxwell opened my eyes up.”  She then worked as a housekeeper and seamstress for Clifford and Virginia Durr, a whyte couple. Politically liberal, the Durrs became her friends. They encouraged—and eventually helped sponsor— Rosa Parks in the summer of 1955 to attend the Highlander Folk School, an education center for activism in workers’ rights and racial equality in Monteagle, Tennessee. There she was mentored by the veteran organizer Septima Clark.

In August 1955, Black teenager Emmett Till was brutally murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi. On November 27, 1955, four days before she would make her stand on the bus, Rosa Parks attended a mass meeting at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery that addressed this case as well as the recent murders of the activists George W. Lee and Lamar Smith. The featured speaker was T.R.M. Howard, a Black civil rights leader from Mississippi who headed the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, spoke about the recent acquittal of the two men who had murdered Till. Rosa Parks was deeply saddened and angry at the news, particularly because Till’s case had garnered much more attention than any of the cases she and the Montgomery NAACP had worked on—and yet, the two men still walked free.

One of the issues for the Montgomery NAACP chapter was segregation on public transport. The first mass bus boycott had occurred in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1953 and the same action was tried in Virginia with some success. In 1954 a group of professional Black women in Montgomery, the Women’s Political Council (WPC), led by Jo Ann Robinson, had protested to the mayor about segregation on the buses, telling him that feeling was so strong that 25 local organisations were discussing a boycott. Rosa, herself, had been ejected from a bus in 1943 when she refused to enter through the back door, and became known to drivers, who would sometimes refuse to let her on.

Then, early in 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was dragged off a bus and arrested. The NAACP was ready to take up her case. However Claudette Colvin turned out to be pregnant, and they thought this would bring bad publicity.

On December 1st, Rosa Parks left Montgomery Fair, the department store where she did repairs on men’s clothing. It was true that she was tired after work and pain in her shoulders, back and neck was troubling her. By chance the bus driver happened to be the very man who had forced her off the bus back in 1943. She did not, as myth would have it, sit in the whytes-only front part, but sat beside a Black man at the back. As more whyte people got on, the bus driver, James Blake, told three Black passengers to give up their seats on the fifth row of the bus when it stopped outside Montgomery, Alabama’s Empire Theatre:

“Y’all better make it light on yourself and let me have those seats!”

Two gave up their places so a whyte man could sit down.

Rosa Parks refused and stayed put.

Blake told her, “If you don’t stand up, I’m going to have to call the police and have you arrested,” said Blake.

“You may do that,” said Rosa Parks.

Parks told Pacifica Radio in April 1956. “The time had just come when I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed.” And in her autobiography, My Story she said:

“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

Arrested, found guilty of violating the segregation law and fined, she consulted with her husband and her mother and decided that her arrest would serve as the test case. ED Nixon, the local president of the NAACP in Montgomery, set about organising the boycott immediately. Jo Ann Robinson and Mary Fair Burks of the WPC announced her arrest to the students and teachers at Alabama State college, telling them that a boycott was being organised. They began mimeographing leaflets and getting them distributed. Nixon meanwhile contacted church leaders and progressive ministers, including Ralph Abernathy and EN French, who presented demands to the bus company on December 5. A coalition of local groups formed the Montgomery Improvement Association, which coordinated the boycott.

On the evening of December 5 thousands of people gathered at the Holt Street Baptist church where the young preacher Martin Luther King praised Rosa Parks as “one of the finest citizens of Montgomery” and called for action in protest against her arrest. His speech, which was televised, invoked American democracy, with biblical images of a righteous pilgrimage and a commitment to justice and equality for all. “We in Montgomery,” he proclaimed, “are determined to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

98 per cent of Montgomery’s Black citizens and sympathizers of other races organized and promoted a boycott of the city bus line that lasted 381 days. Some 50,000 African Americans carpooled, used church vehicles, rode in African-American-owned taxis and walked. The boycott crippled whyte businesses and the public transit system. Nearly 100 people were arrested in Montgomery, including Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. who was appointed the spokesperson for the boycott. In January and February 1956, the houses of Nixon and King were bombed. The boycott spread. Contingent with the protest in Montgomery, others took shape throughout the south and the USA. Thousands of courageous people joined the “protest” to demand equal rights for all people, in the form of sit-ins, eat-ins, swim-ins, and similar causes. On December 20, the Supreme Court supported the decision of a lower court and federal injunctions were served on the bus company officials to end segregation. Montgomery’s buses were integrated on December 21 1956.

Rosa Parks on a bus

Rosa Parks sits undisturbed on a bus in Montogmery, Alabama, in 1956, a little over a year after her seminal act of defiance triggered the civil rights movement and turned the segregation in the south into an international scandal. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

After taking her public stand, Rosa Parks became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement but suffered hardships as a result. Due to economic sanctions used against activists, she lost her job at the department store. Her husband quit his job after his boss forbade him to talk about his wife or the legal case.

In 1957, Raymond and Rosa Parks left Montgomery for Hampton, Virginia; mostly because she was unable to find work. She also disagreed with King and other leaders of Montgomery’s struggling civil rights movement about how to proceed, and was constantly receiving death threats. In Hampton, she found a job as a hostess in an inn at Hampton Institute, a historically Black college.

Later that year, at the urging of her brother and sister-in-law in Detroit, Sylvester and Daisy McCauley, Rosa and Raymond Parks and her mother moved north to join them. In Detroit she would eventually become a revered figure, with a street and a school named after her.

In 1964 she became a deaconess in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). The following year, she became a special assistant to Democratic Congressman John Conyers, until her retirement in 1988. However, Rosa Parks continued her activism, traveling to support the Selma-to-Montgomery Marches, the Freedom Now Party, and the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. She also befriended Malcolm X, who she regarded as a personal hero. She responded to the Detroit riots in 1967, conferring with members of the Black Power movement like Stokely Carmichael. She opposed the war in Vietnam.

In the 1970s, Rosa Parks organized for the freedom of political prisoners in the United States, particularly cases involving issues of self-defense. She helped found the Detroit chapter of the Joann Little Defense Committee, and also worked in support of the Wilmington 10, the RNA-11, and Gary Tyler. Following national outcry around her case, Little succeeded in her defense that she used deadly force to resist sexual assault and was acquitted. Gary Tyler was finally released in April 2016 after 41 years in prison.

The 1970s were a decade of loss for Parks in her personal life. Her family was plagued with illness; she and her husband had suffered stomach ulcers for years and both required hospitalization. In spite of her fame and constant speaking engagements, Parks was not a wealthy woman. She donated most of the money from speaking to civil rights causes, and lived on her staff salary and her husband’s pension. Medical bills and time missed from work caused financial strain that required her to accept assistance from church groups and admirers.

Her husband died of throat cancer on August 19, 1977 and her brother, her only sibling, died of cancer that November. Her personal ordeals caused her to become removed from the civil rights movement. She learned from a newspaper of the death of Fannie Lou Hamer, once a close friend. Parks suffered two broken bones in a fall on an icy sidewalk, an injury which caused considerable and recurring pain. She decided to move with her mother into an apartment for senior citizens. There she nursed her mother Leona through the final stages of cancer and geriatric dementia until she died in 1979 at the age of 92.

In the 1980s, Rosa Parks—widowed and without immediate family—rededicated herself to civil rights and educational organizations. She co-founded the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation for college-bound high school seniors, to which she donated most of her speaker fees. She fought against apartheid, joining protests outside the South African embassy in Washington, DC. When she met Nelson Mandela after his release from prison, he told her, “You sustained me while I was in prison all those years.”

Rosa Parks also traveled extensively to lecture on the civil rights movement and the social and economic problems that continued to face African Americans. In 1987 she founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, which aimed to help the young and educate them about civil rights.

In 1992, Parks published Rosa Parks: My Story, an autobiography aimed at younger readers, which recounts her life leading to her decision to keep her seat on the bus. A few years later, she published Quiet Strength (1995), her memoir, which focuses on her faith.

On August 30, 1994, Joseph Skipper, an African-American drug addict, entered her home to rob it and attacked the 81-year-old Parks. The incident sparked outrage throughout the United States. After his arrest, Skipper said that he had not known he was in Parks’ home but recognized her after entering. Skipper asked, “Hey, aren’t you Rosa Parks?” to which she replied, “Yes.” She handed him $3 when he demanded money and an additional $50 when he demanded more. Before fleeing, Skipper struck Parks in the face. Skipper was arrested and charged with various breaking and entering offenses against Parks and other neighborhood victims. He admitted guilt and, on August 8, 1995, was sentenced to eight to 15 years in prison. Suffering anxiety upon returning to her small central Detroit house following the ordeal, Parks moved into Riverfront Towers, a secure high-rise apartment building where she lived for the rest of her life.

In October 1995, she addressed the Million Man March in Washington. In 1996, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to civilians who make outstanding contributions to American life. In 1999, she was awarded the Congressional gold medal, the nation’s highest civilian honour. Also in 1999 Rosa Parks filmed a cameo appearance for the television series Touched by an Angel. It was her last appearance on film because of health problems.

The Rosa Parks Library and Museum opened in November 2000 in Montgomery. That winter of 2000 she met Pope John-Paul II in St. Louis, MO and read a statement to him asking for racial healing.

“The Rosa Parks Story” was filmed in Montgomery, Alabama May 2001, an aired February 24, 2002 on the CBS television network. However, in the same year, Rosa Parks received an eviction notice from her $1800 per month apartment due to non-payment of rent. Rosa Parks was incapable of managing her own financial affairs by this time due to age-related physical and mental decline. Her rent was paid from a collection taken by Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit. When her rent became delinquent and her impending eviction was highly publicized in 2004, executives of the ownership company announced they had forgiven the back rent and would allow Rosa Parks, by then 91 and in extremely poor health, to live rent free in the building for the remainder of her life.

Rosa Parks made her peaceful transition on October 24, 2005. She was the first African-American woman to lie in state in the Capitol rotunda.

Speaking in 1992, Rosa Parks said history too often maintained “that my feet were hurting and I didn’t know why I refused to stand up when they told me. But the real reason of my not standing up was I felt that I had a right to be treated as any other passenger. We had endured that kind of treatment for too long.”




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