The American Civil Rights movement had many influential and renowned leaders. Perhaps the most humble of these was Rosa Parks, whose spontaneous act of courage and determination sparked a boycott that would inspire the movement and help change America for the better. Parks’ actions aboard a Montgomery, Alabama city bus in 1955 are recognized as one of the most important events of the Civil Rights movement.
Rosa Louise McCauley was born in Tuskegee, Alabama on February 4, 1913. After her parents divorced, her mother moved Rosa to her grandparents’ home in Pie Level, Alabama. Both of
Parks’ grandparents were former slaves. Rosa attended school nearby but would leave high school in eleventh grade to care for her ailing mother and grandmother.
Rosa married Raymond Parks in 1932 and her new husband supported her efforts to complete her high school degree that same year. Raymond was a barber and member of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter. The Parks became more and more interested and involved in civil rights, with Rosa also joining the NAACP in 1943. She worked as a secretary to E.D. Nixon, who served as the organization’s president until 1957.
Rosa also worked as a seamstress in a Montgomery, Alabama department store and it was after one of her shifts on December 1, 1955 that she ignited a movement. After boarding the Cleveland Avenue bus for her ride home, the bus driver, noticing that several white passengers were standing, directed Rosa and two other black passengers to give up their seats and move further to the back of the bus. The other two passengers complied, but Rosa refused to leave her seat.
During this time, a Montgomery city ordinance provided separate but equal rules for public transportation, and gave its bus drivers the authority to mandate where black passengers could and could not sit on the bus. Following Parks’ refusal to give up her seat, the bus driver had her arrested.
E.D. Nixon, black ministers and other African-American leaders responded to Parks’ arrest by organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which would become a very successful act of civil disobedience, lasting for 381 days. During this time, blacks walked to work, took taxis, and shared rides. Eighteen black-owned taxi companies would stop at bus stops and pick up passengers, charging them the same ten-cent fare they would have paid on the bus. The boycott led to financial hardship for the Montgomery transit company, and led to violent repercussions – Nixon and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s homes were bombed and black churches were burned. The boycott continued.
Rosa’s attorney Fred Gray filed suit in the US District Court for the Middle District of Alabama and in June 1956 the Court ruled that separate but equal transportation laws were unconstitutional, giving Parks and the Civil Rights movement a significant legal victory, which would later be upheld by the US Supreme Court, in November 1956.
Rosa and Raymond Parks would both lose their jobs for their involvement in the boycott, and would eventually leave Alabama and settle in Detroit. Rosa Parks would co-found (with her friend Elaine Eason) the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development in 1987, in honor of Raymond, who had passed away in 1977. The Institute’s “Pathways to Freedom” program traces the Underground Railroad and follows the trails of the freedom riders.
Rosa Parks passed away in Detroit on October 24, 2005. She was a true American hero who was recognized by Time Magazine as one of the twenty most influential people of the 20th century. President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996 and she received the Congressional Gold Medal a year later. The NAACP awarded her the Martin Luther King, Jr Award in 1980 and the Spingarn Medal in 1979, which is awarded annually to recognize the highest or noblest achievement by an African-American.
Feature image: Rosa Parks seated toward the front of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama – 1956
Sources / Credits: Both photographs of Rosa Parks credited to Underwood Archives / UIG
Text sources include:
Rosa Parks: My Story by Rosa Parks with Jim Haskins (Dial Books, 1992)