February is Black History Month, and Aloud joins the celebration with profiles of African-American women who’ve made history. Today: Civil rights activist Rosa Parks.
“I have learned over the years that when one's mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”
We all know the name Rosa Parks, the unflinchingly brave civil rights activist whose 1955 refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, AL, bus sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, outraged like-minded people across the U.S. and galvanized the civil rights movement. But Rosa Parks wasn’t born on that bus and she lived a long life after her historic ride.
Rosa Louise McCauley was born in Tuskegee, AL, on February 4, 1913. Her father, James McCauley, was a carpenter; her mother, Leona Edwards, was a teacher. After her parents separated, Rosa spent her childhood on her grandparents’ farm outside Montgomery, where she was homeschooled by her mother until she was 11. She attended high school, but left before graduating when her mother and grandmother both became seriously ill.
In 1932, when she was 19, Rosa met and married Raymond Parks, a barber and NAACP activist. Wikipedia says: “At her husband's urging, she finished her high school studies in 1933, at a time when less than 7% of African-Americans had a high school diploma.”
Separate but Not Equal
In the South of Rosa’s childhood, Jim Crow laws reigned supreme. Public restrooms, drinking fountains, restaurants, education and transportation, including school buses, were all segregated by race under the fiction of “separate but equal” accommodations. Rosa told an interviewer that in her childhood, white children took the school bus and black children walked. "The bus was among the first ways I realized there was a black world and a white world.”
Rosa had her first taste of equality when she worked briefly on Maxwell Air Force Base, where racial segregation was not allowed, and rode on an integrated trolley.
From the Back of the Bus to the Supreme Court
Rosa had been active in the civil rights movement since the 1940s, when she joined the NAACP and was elected secretary to the Montgomery chapter. By the 1950s resistance to segregation was exacting a heavy toll in lives as the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacy groups waged war to maintain the racist status quo. On November 27, 1955, Rosa attended a mass meeting inspired by the recent murders of activists Emmett Till, George Lee and Lamar Smith. By December 1, 1955, as she rode the bus home from her job as a seamstress, she’d had her fill. When the driver ordered her to give up her seat to a white passenger, she refused and was arrested.
She later wrote, “I had given up my seat before, but this day, I was especially tired. Tired from my work as a seamstress, and tired from the ache in my heart.”
That same day, E.D. Nixon, president of the NAACP’s Montgomery chapter, began to organize a boycott of the city’s buses. On December 5, most of Montgomery’s 40,000 African-American commuters either walked to school or work or stayed home. That night local African-American community leaders met and formed the Montgomery Improvement Association to push for broader change. They appointed a new face on the Montgomery scene, the young minister Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to lead the effort. The boycott continued for 382 days.
According to Biography.com, “Dozens of the Montgomery public buses sat idle for months, severely crippling the transit company's finances. But the boycott faced strong resistance, with some segregationists retaliating with violence. Black churches were burned and both Martin Luther King, Jr., and E.D. Nixon's homes were attacked.”
For a brief, well done history of Rosa Parks, watch this Biography.com video.
In June 1956, a federal court declared Alabama’s segregated transportation laws unconstitutional, a decision the Supreme Court later upheld in November.
Rosa and Ray moved to Detroit in the late 1950s. She worked as a seamstress and then, from 1965 through 1988, was the secretary and receptionist for the Detroit offices of African-American U.S. Representative John Conyers.
Rosa was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton in 1996 and, one year later, the Rosa Parks Congressional Gold Medal honored her as “Mother of the Modern Day Civil Rights Movement”.
When she died in 2005 at age 92, the U.S. Senate and House approved a resolution to honor Rosa by allowing her body to lie in the Capitol. According to Wikipedia, she was “the 31st person, the first American who had not been a U.S. government official, and the second non-government official (after Frenchman Pierre L'Enfant) to be paid this tribute. She was also the first woman and the second black person to lie in honor.” An estimated 50,000 people viewed the casket.
For more information about Rosa Parks, see:
- Rosa Parks: My Story
- Academy of Achievement biography and video interviews
- The Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development
- Rosa Parks Library and Museum at Troy University in Montgomery
To learn more about Black History Month, see: