Rosa L. ParksPioneer of the Civil Rights
February 4, 1913 - October 14, 2005
"The only thing that bothered me was that we waited so long to make this protest"
Rosa Parks was born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskeegee, Alabama, on February 4, 1913, to Leona (Edwards) and James McCauley, a teacher and acarpenter, respectively. When her parents separated, she moved with her mother to Pine Level, just outside the capital of Montgomery.
She grew up on a farm with her maternal grandparents, mother, and
younger brother Sylvester, and began her lifelong membership in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a century-old independent black denomination.
She attended rural schools
until the age of eleven, then enrolled at the Industrial School for
Girls in Montgomery, where she took academic and vocational courses.
Parks went on to a laboratory school set up by the Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes for secondary education, but dropped out in order to care for her grandmother and later her mother, after they became ill.
At the turn of the century, the
former Confederate states had passed new constitutions and electoral laws that
effectively disfranchised black voters
and, in Alabama, many poor white voters as well. Under the white-established Jim Crow laws,
passed after Democrats regained control of southern legislatures, racial
segregation was imposed in public facilities and retail stores in the South, including public transportation.
Bus and train companies enforced seating policies with separate sections for
blacks and whites. School bus transportation was unavailable in any form for
black schoolchildren in the South, and black education was always underfunded.
Parks recalled going to elementary school in Pine Level, where school buses
took white students to their new school and black students had to walk to
"I'd see the bus pass every
day... But to me, that was a way of life; we had no choice but to accept what
was the custom. The bus was among the first ways I realized there was a black
world and a white world."
Although Parks' autobiography recounts
early memories of the kindness of white strangers, she could not ignore the racism of her
society. When the Ku Klux Klan marched down the street in front
of their house, Parks recalls her grandfather guarding the front door with a
shotgun. The Montgomery Industrial School, founded and staffed by white
northerners for black children, was burned twice by arsonists. Its faculty was
ostracized by the white community.
In 1932, Rosa married Raymond Parks,
from Montgomery. He was a member of the NAACP, which at the time
was collecting money to support the defense of the Scottsboro
Boys, a group of black men falsely accused of raping two white
women. After her marriage, Rosa took numerous jobs, ranging from domestic
worker to hospital aide. 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. Despite the Jim Crow laws and discrimination by registrars, she
succeeded in registering to vote on her third try.
In December 1943, Parks became
active in the Civil Rights Movement,
joined the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, and was elected secretary to its
president, Edgar Nixon. She later said, "I was the
only woman there, and they needed a secretary, and I was too timid to say
no." She continued as secretary until 1957.
In the 1940s, Parks and her husband
were members of the Voters' League. Sometime soon after 1944, she held a brief
job at Maxwell Air Force Base, a federally owned
area that did not permit racial segregation, and rode on its integrated
trolley. Speaking to her biographer, Parks noted, "You might just say
Maxwell opened my eyes up." Parks worked as a housekeeper and seamstress
for Clifford and
Virginia Durr, a white couple. Politically liberal, the Durrs became her friends. They
encouraged—and eventually helped sponsor—Parks in the summer of 1955 to attend
the Highlander Folk School, an
education center for workers' rights and racial equality in Monteagle, Tennessee.
Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott
In 1900, Montgomery had passed a
city ordinance (essentially only whites could vote) to segregate bus passengers
by race. Conductors empowered to assign seats to achieve that goal. According
to the law, no passengers would be required to move or give up their seat and
stand if the bus was crowded and no other seats were available. Over time and
by custom, however, Montgomery bus drivers adopted the practice of requiring
black riders to move whenever there were no white-only seats left.
The first four rows of seats on each
Montgomery bus were reserved for white people. Buses had "colored"
sections for black people generally in the rear of the bus, although blacks
comprised more than 75% of the ridership. The sections were not fixed but were
determined by placement of a movable sign. Black people could sit in the middle
rows until the white section filled; if more whites needed seats, blacks were
to move to seats in the rear, stand, or, if there was no room, leave the bus.
Black people could not sit across the aisle in the same row as white people.
The driver could move the "colored" section sign, or remove it
altogether. If white people were already sitting in the front, black people
could board to pay the fare, but had to disembark and reenter through the rear
For years, the black community had
complained that the situation was unfair. Parks said, "My resisting being
mistreated on the bus did not begin with that particular arrest...I did a lot
of walking in Montgomery."
Her refusal to move
After working all day, Parks boarded
the Cleveland Avenue bus at around 6 p.m., Thursday, December 1, 1955, in
downtown Montgomery. She paid her fare and sat in an empty seat in the first
row of back seats reserved for blacks in the "colored" section. It
was near the middle of the bus and directly behind the ten seats reserved for
white passengers. Initially, she did not notice that the bus driver was the
same man, James F. Blake, who had left her in the rain in 1943. As the bus
traveled along its regular route, all of the white-only seats in the bus filled
up. The bus reached the third stop in front of the Empire Theater, and several
white passengers boarded.
Following prevailing practice, Blake
noted that the front of the bus was filled with white passengers, with two or
three standing. He moved the "colored" section sign behind Parks and
demanded that four black people give up their seats in the middle section so
that the white passengers could sit. Years later, in recalling the events of
the day, Parks said, "When that white driver stepped back toward us, when
he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a
determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night."
By Parks' account, Blake said,
"Y'all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those
seats." Three of them complied. Parks said, "The driver wanted us to
stand up, the four of us. We didn't move at the beginning, but he says, 'Let me
have these seats.' And the other three people moved, but I didn't." The
black man sitting next to her gave up his seat.
Parks moved, but toward the window
seat; she did not get up to move to the newly repositioned colored section
"Why don't you stand up?"
Parks responded, "I don't think I should have to stand up." Blake
called the police to arrest Parks. When recalling the incident for Eyes on the
Prize, a 1987 public television series on the Civil Rights
Movement, Parks said, "When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was
going to stand up, and I said, 'No, I'm not.' And he said, 'Well, if you don't
stand up, I'm going to have to call the police and have you arrested.' I said,
'You may do that." During a 1956 radio interview with Sydney Rogers
in West Oakland
several months after her arrest, when asked about her decision, Parks said,
"I would have to know for once and for all what rights I had as a human
being and a citizen."
She also described her motivation in
her autobiography, My Story:
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.
When Parks refused to give up her
seat, a police officer arrested her. As the officer took her away, she recalled
that she asked, "Why do you push us around?" The officer's response
as she remembered it was, "I don't know, but the law's the law, and you're
under arrest." She later said, "I only knew that, as I was being
arrested, that it was the very last time that I would ever ride in humiliation
of this kind..."
Parks was charged with a violation
of Chapter 6, Section 11 segregation law of the Montgomery City code, even
though she technically had not taken up a white-only seat—she had been in a
colored section. Edgar Nixon, president of the Montgomery
chapter of the NAACP and leader of the Pullman Union, and her friend Clifford Durr
bailed Parks out of jail the evening of December 2.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
That evening, Nixon conferred with Jo Ann
Robinson, an Alabama State College professor and member
of the Women's Political Council (WPC), about the
Parks' case. Robinson felt this was an opportunity to seize and stayed up all
night mimeographing over 35,000 handbills announcing
a bus boycott. The Women's Political Council was the first group to officially
endorse the boycott.
On Sunday, December 4, 1955, plans
for the Montgomery Bus Boycott were announced at black churches in the area,
and a front-page article in The Montgomery Advertiser helped
spread the word. At a church rally that night, those attending agreed
unanimously to continue the boycott until they were treated with the level of
courtesy they expected, until black drivers were hired, and until seating in
the middle of the bus was handled on a first-come basis.
Four days later, Parks was tried on
charges of disorderly conduct and violating a local
ordinance. The trial lasted 30 minutes. After being found guilty and fined $10,
plus $4 in court costs,
Parks appealed her conviction and formally challenged the legality of racial
segregation. In a 1992 interview with National Public Radio's Lynn Neary, Parks
I did not want to be mistreated, I did not want to be
deprived of a seat that I had paid for. It was just time... there was
opportunity for me to take a stand to express the way I felt about being
treated in that manner. I had not planned to get arrested. I had plenty to do
without having to end up in jail. But when I had to face that decision, I
didn't hesitate to do so because I felt that we had endured that too long. The
more we gave in, the more we complied with that kind of treatment, the more
oppressive it became.
On the day of Parks' trial — Monday, December 5, 1955 — the WPC distributed the
35,000 leaflets. The handbill read,
"We are...asking every Negro to
stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial ... You can afford
to stay out of school for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But
please, children and grown-ups, don't ride the bus at all on Monday. Please
stay off the buses Monday."[
It rained that day, but the black
community persevered in their boycott. Some rode in carpools, while others
traveled in black-operated cabs that charged the same fare as the bus, 10
cents. Most of the remainder of the 40,000 black commuters walked, some as far
as 20 miles (30 km).
On Monday, December 5, 1955, after the
success of the one-day boycott, a group of 16 to 18 people gathered at the Mt.
Zion AME Zion Church to discuss boycott strategies. The group agreed that a new
organization was needed to lead the boycott effort if it were to continue. Rev.
Ralph David Abernathy suggested the name
"Montgomery Improvement Association"
The name was adopted, and the MIA was formed. Its members elected as their
president Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, a relative
newcomer to Montgomery who was a young and mostly unknown minister of the
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
That Monday night, 50 leaders of the
African-American community gathered to discuss actions to be taken in response
to Parks' arrest. Edgar Nixon, the president of the NAACP, said,
"My God, look what segregation has put in my hands!"
Parks was the ideal plaintiff for a test case against city and state segregation
laws, as she was a responsible, mature woman with an excellent reputation. King
said that Mrs. Parks was regarded as "one of the finest citizens of
Montgomery—not one of the finest Negro citizens, but one of the finest citizens
of Montgomery." Parks was securely
married and employed, possessed a quiet and dignified demeanor, and was
In the end, black residents of
Montgomery continued the boycott for 381 days, at considerable personal
sacrifice. Dozens of public buses stood idle for months, severely damaging the
bus transit company's finances, until the city repealed its law requiring
segregation on public buses following the US Supreme Court ruling that it was
Parks played an important part in
raising international awareness of the plight of African Americans and the
civil rights struggle. King wrote in his 1958 book Stride Toward Freedom
that Parks' arrest was the catalyst rather than the cause of the protest:
"The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices."
He wrote, "Actually, no one can
understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup
of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, 'I can take it no
After her arrest, Parks became an
icon of the Civil Rights Movement but suffered hardships as a result. Economic
sanctions were applied and 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. Parks traveled and spoke extensively.
In 1957, Raymond and Rosa Parks left
Montgomery for Hampton, Virginia; mostly because she was
unable to find work. She had disagreements with King and other leaders of
Montgomery's struggling civil rights movement about how to proceed. In Hampton,
she found a job as a hostess in an inn at the historically black Hampton Institute.
Later that year, at the urging of
her brother and sister-in-law in Detroit,
Michigan, Sylvester and Daisy McCauley, Rosa and Raymond Parks, and
her mother moved north to join them. Parks worked as a seamstress until 1965.
That year, John Conyers,
an African-American U.S. Representative, hired
her as a secretary and receptionist for his congressional office in Detroit.
She held this position until she retired in 1988.
In a telephone interview with CNN on October 24, 2005, Conyers recalled, "You treated
her with deference because she was so quiet, so serene — just a very
special person ... There was only one Rosa Parks."
Later in life, Parks served as a member of the Board of Advocates of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
The 1970s was a decade of loss and
suffering for Parks because of personal problems. Her family was plagued with
illness; she and her husband had suffered stomach ulcers for years and both
required hospitalization. Then in their 60s, her brother Sylvester and husband
were both diagnosed with cancer, as was her mother. Parks sometimes visited
three hospitals in the same day. 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 the following
November. Her personal ordeals caused her to become removed from the civil
rights movement. She had to learn 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 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 1980 Parks, widowed and without
immediate family, rededicated herself to founding and fund raising for 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. In February 1987 she co-founded,
with Elaine Eason Steele, the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development,
an institute that runs the "Pathways to Freedom" bus tours which
introduce young people to important civil rights and Underground Railroad sites throughout the
country. Though her health declined as she entered her seventies, Parks
continued to make many appearances and devoted considerable energy to these
causes as much energy as possible to these endeavors.
In 1992, Parks published Rosa
Parks: My Story, an autobiography aimed at younger readers, which recounts
her life details her life leading to her decision to keep her seat on the bus.
A few years later, she published her memoir, titled Quiet Strength
(1995), which focuses on her faith in her life. On August 30, 1994, Joseph
Skipper, an African-American drug addict, entered her home and attacked the
81-year-old Parks in the course of a robbery. 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 1994 the Ku Klux Klan
applied to sponsor a portion of United StatesInterstate 55
in Saint Louis County and Jefferson County, near St. Louis, Missouri, for clean up (which
allowed them to have signs stating that this section of highway was maintained
by the organization). Since the state could not refuse the KKK's sponsorship,
the Missouri legislature voted to name the highway section the "Rosa Parks
Highway". When asked how she felt about this honor, she is reported to
have commented, "It is always nice to be thought of."
In 1999 Parks filmed a cameo
appearance for the television series Touched by an Angel. It was to be her last
appearance on film; health problems made her increasingly an invalid.
In 2002 Parks received an eviction
notice from her $1800 per month apartment due to non-payment of rent. 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
Parks, by then 91 and in extremely poor health, to live rent free in the
building for the remainder of her life. Her heirs and various interest
organizations alleged at the time that her financial affairs had been
Death and funeral
Parks resided in Detroit
until she died of natural causes at the age of 92 on October 24, 2005, in her
apartment on the east side of the city. She and her husband never had children
and she outlived her only sibling.
City officials in Montgomery and
Detroit announced on October 27, 2005, that the front seats of their city buses
would be reserved with black ribbons in honor of Parks until her funeral.
Parks' coffin was flown to Montgomery and taken in a horse-drawn hearse to the
St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church,
where she lay in repose at the altar on October 29, 2005,
dressed in the uniform of a church deaconess. A memorial service was held there
the following morning. One of the speakers, United States Secretary of StateCondoleezza
Rice, said that if it had not been for Parks, she would probably
have never become the Secretary of State. In the evening the casket was
transported to Washington, D.C. and transported by a bus
similar to the one in which she made her protest, to lie in honor in the U.S.
Since the founding in 1852 of the
practice of lying in state, or honor, in the Rotunda, Parks was the 31st
person, the first American who had not been a U.S. government official, and the
second private person (after the French planner Pierre
L'Enfant) to be honored in this way. She was the first woman and the
second black person to lie in honor in the Capitol. An estimated 50,000 people
viewed the casket there, and the event was broadcast on television on October
31, 2005. A memorial service was held at St. Paul AME church in Washington, DC
on the afternoon of October 31, 2005.
With her body and casket returned to
Detroit, for two days, Parks lay in repose at the Charles H.
Wright Museum of African American History. Her funeral service was
seven hours long and was held on November 2, 2005, at the Greater Grace Temple
Church in Detroit. After the service, an honor guard from the Michigan National Guard laid the U.S. flag over the
casket and carried it to a horse-drawn hearse, which was intended to carry it,
in daylight, to the cemetery. As the hearse passed the thousands of people who
were viewing the procession, many clapped and cheered loudly and released white
balloons. Parks was interred between her husband and mother at Detroit's Woodlawn Cemetery in the
chapel's mausoleum. The chapel was renamed the Rosa L. Parks Freedom Chapel in
her honor. Parks had previously prepared and placed a headstone on the selected
location with the inscription "Rosa L. Parks, wife, 1913–."