Rosa Parks

Background

Africans are transported to America as slaves from 1619. Slavery is abolished following the Civil War of 1861-65 but racism and segregation remain. In the middle of the 20th Century the fight for equality for African-Americans leads to massive civil rights campaigns.

Mini biography

Born Rosa Louise McCauley on 4 February 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama, US. Her father is a carpenter and builder and her mother a teacher. She has a younger brother, Sylvester. After her parents separate when she is five, Parks moves with her mother and brother to Pine Level, Alabama, a small town near Montgomery. She grows up surrounded by an extended family that includes her maternal grandparents.

Parks is taught at home by her mother until she is 11. Her education continues at the Industrial School for Girls in Montgomery, Alabama, then at Alabama State Teachers College. She drops out of the later to care for her ailing grandmother and later her mother so does not attain a high school degree until she is 21.

1932 - She marries Raymond Parks. The couple join the campaign to save the 'Scottsboro Boys' - nine young black men accused of raping two white teenagers near Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931. Despite strong evidence of their innocence, an all-white jury convicts the boys of the crime and sentences eight of them to death. All of the Scottsboro boys eventually gain their freedom, but the process takes nearly 20 years.

Around this time Parks works at Maxwell Air Force Base. The base is desegregated. "I could ride on an integrated trolley bus on the base," she later recalls, "But when I left the base I had to ride home on a segregated bus. ... You might just say Maxwell opened my eyes up."

Under the segregation laws in force in Alabama at the time the first four rows of a metropolitan bus are reserved for whites and the last 10 for blacks. The rows in the middle can be used by blacks but must be vacated by them if a white wants a seat. Some drivers also make blacks pay for a ticket at the front of the bus then get off and reboard at the back.

1943 - Parks becomes a member of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), serving as secretary to the president of the chapter, E.D. Nixon, until 1956.

At the time the NAACP is the leading organisation dedicated to achieving equal rights for African-Americans.

In November she is ejected from a Montgomery public bus after a dispute with the driver, James F. Blake. Parks had refused to reboard the bus through the crowded rear doors.

1953 - The first mass boycott by African-Americans of segregated bus services takes place in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

1954 - The US Supreme Court orders the desegregation of schools.

1955 - In the summer Parks attends a training workshop on racial desegregation at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee.

On 1 December, on a bus trip home from her work as a seamstress at the Montgomery Fair department store, Parks refuses to surrender her seat to a white man. Coincidentally the driver of the bus is James F. Blake, the same driver who had ordered her off a bus in 1943.

"I could not see how standing up was going to 'make it light' for me," Parks later writes in the autobiography, 'Rosa Parks: My Story'. "The more we gave in and complied, the worse they treated us. ...

"I thought back to the time when I used to sit up all night and didn't sleep, and my grandfather would have his gun right by the fireplace, or if he had his one-horse wagon going anywhere, he always had his gun in the back of the wagon. ...

"When he (the driver) 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.'"

"I don't really know why I wouldn't move," Parks also later says. "There was no plot or plan at all. I was just tired from shopping. My feet hurt. ...

"In fact if I had let myself think too deeply about what might happen to me I might have gotten off the bus."

In her autobiography Parks writes, "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 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in. ...

"My resisting being mistreated on the bus did not begin with that particular arrest. I did a lot of walking in Montgomery."

Parks is arrested and charged with violating the segregation law. She is bailed the same night.

Her arrest fuels the civil rights movement, with E.D. Nixon asking if she is prepared to appeal her charge in a test case against the bus segregation laws. At the same time, the Women's Political Council produces and distributes 35,000 leaflets calling on African-Americans to boycott buses on the day of Parks' trial, Monday 5 December. The call for a boycott is also spread in churches and on the front page of 'The Montgomery Advertiser' newspaper.

After Parks is convicted and fined US$10 plus US$4 in fees by the court, sums that E.D. Nixon pays, the African-American community decides to continue the boycott until reforms are introduced that guarantee they will be treated with courtesy on buses, that black drivers will be hired, and that seating will be allocated on a first come first served basis.

The Montgomery Improvement Association is formed to coordinate the boycott and Martin Luther King Jr. is appointed as the group's leader.

Speaking at the Holt Street Baptist Church on the night of Parks conviction King says, "There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. ... We are here. We are here because we are tired now. ...

"We in Montgomery are determined to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream."

At the same time as the boycott is being pursued, the legal challenge against the bus segregation laws is taken to the Supreme Court.

During the ensuing standoff, Parks, her husband and others lose their jobs and are harassed and threatened. Churches and houses are bombed, including those of Martin Luther King Jr. and E.D. Nixon. Parks receives death threats. Nearly 100 people are arrested, including Parks and King.

Montgomery's public transport system depends on African-American patronage for nearly two-thirds of its income. It will come close to bankruptcy during the 381 days that the boycott lasts. African-Americans, meanwhile, either walk to work or form carpools and private cab networks as an alternative means of transport. Parks serves as a dispatcher for this ad-hoc system.

1956 - On 13 November the Supreme Court finds that Alabama's bus segregation laws are unconstitutional. The boycott ends on 20 December.

Parks subsequently becomes known as the "mother" of the civil rights movement.

"Mrs Parks' arrest was the precipitating factor rather then the course of the protest," Martin Luther King Jr. later writes in his 1958 book 'Stride Toward Freedom'. "The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices. ... Actually no one can understand the action of Mrs Parks unless he realises that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, 'I can take it no longer.' ...

"She was planted there by her personal sense of dignity and self-respect. She was anchored to that seat by the accumulated indignities of days gone and the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn."

However, though the Montgomery buses have been forced to desegregate, intimidation and harassment of African-Americans continues.

1957 - In August Parks moves with her husband and mother to Detroit to escape harassment and find work.

Meanwhile, federal troops are used to enforce the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

1958 - Parks takes a job at Hampton Institute in Virginia as a hostess at an inn. After a year she rejoins her husband and mother in Detroit, working once more as a seamstress.

1963 - Parks participates in the 'March on Washington' on 28 August. At the culmination of the march an interracial crowd of more than 250,000 gathers around the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech.

In 1965 Parks will also walk in the march King leads from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery.

1964 - The Civil Rights Act is passed. The act authorises the federal government to enforce desegregation and outlaws discrimination in publicly owned facilities, as well as in employment.

1965 - Parks joins the staff of Michigan congressman John Conyers Jr., serving in the position until 1988.

1970 - She receives the Spingarn Medal, the NAACP's highest honour.

1977 - Parks' husband Raymond dies. Her mother dies in 1980.

1980 - She receives the prestigious Martin Luther King Jr. Award. Parks will also receive a lifetime achievement award from the American Public Transit Association and the International Freedom Conductor Award from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Centre.

1987 - With the help of Elaine Eason Steele, Parks founds the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, which provides scholarships and guidance to young African-Americans.

1992 - Parks' autobiography 'Rosa Parks: My Story' is published.

1995 - In October she addresses the 'Million Man March' in Washington.

1996 - She tours the US and visits South Africa. During the year she is presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award bestowed by the US Government. In 1999 she is awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honour.

However, despite the accolades, Parks continues to endure hardship.

In 1994 she is hospitalised after being beaten during a break and enter at her home. She also has problems paying her rent until her landlord waives the fee. In 2002 she is diagnosed with dementia.

2004 - A museum and library on the street corner in Montgomery where she boarded the bus on 1 December 1955 is named after Parks.

Other dedications to Parks include the renaming of Cleveland Avenue in Montgomery to Rosa Parks Boulevard and the naming of a portion of Interstate 55 south of St Louis the Rosa Parks Highway. This later portion of road had originally been sponsored by the Ku Klux Klan.

2005 - Parks dies at her home in Detroit on 24 October.

Tributes to her quickly begin to pour in from around the US and the world.

Senator Edward Kennedy calls Parks "a true American hero."

"She sat down in order that we might stand up, and the walls of segregation came down," Reverend Jesse Jackson says.

"Rosa was a true giant of the civil rights movement," her former employer, Congressman John Conyers Jr. says. "There are very few people who can say their actions and conduct changed the face of the nation, and Rosa Parks is one of those individuals."

The US parliament votes to allow Parks' body to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington "so that citizens of the United States may pay their last respects to this great American." She is only the 29th person and the first woman to be granted this honour.

Her body is also placed on view in Montgomery and Detroit.

An estimated 30,000 people file past her casket in the Capitol Rotunda and thousands more at the Montgomery and Detroit viewings.

Parks' funeral is held at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit on 2 November. Four thousand mourners attend, including former President Bill Clinton, his wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, former President Jimmy Carter, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Aretha Franklin, and Winnie Mandela.

"The world knows of Rosa Parks because of a single, simple act of dignity and courage that struck a lethal blow to the foundations of legal bigotry," Bill Clinton says at the service.

"In a region where gentlemen are supposed to give up their seats for ladies she was just taking the next step on her road to freedom. ...

"(She) ignited the most significant social movement in modern American history. ... So this is the little lady who started the great war. ...

"This time the war was fought by Martin Luther King's rules, civil disobedience and peaceful resistance. ... But a war nonetheless for one America in which the law of the land means the same thing for everybody."

Parks is later entombed in a mausoleum at Detroit's Woodlawn Cemetery.

2013 - A bronze statue of Parks is unveiled in the Statuary Hall at the US Capitol on 27 February. Parks is the first African-American woman to be memorialised in the hall.

Comment

Rosa Parks' refusal to submit to an unjust law and give up her bus seat to a white man shows the power ordinary people have to effect social change. The overturning of Alabama's segregation laws and the successes of the civil rights movement could not have occurred without the commitment of many thousands but it was the courage of one determined woman that initiated the reforms.

Parks' own view of her legacy was quite matter-of-fact. "I want everyone to remember me as a person who wanted to be free," she told 'The Washington Post' on the 40th anniversary of her famous bus ride.