Revered as one of the most influential people of
the twentieth century, Rosa Parks is best known for her role in the Montgomery Bus
Boycott in 1956. Parks was born on February
4, 1913 to Leona and James McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama. Leona worked as a teacher and James as a carpenter. Parks was schooled by her mother until the age
of 11 when she moved to Montgomery with an aunt and started attending the Montgomery
Industrial School for girls. She even took
a job as a janitor to support her private school education. Though Parks began to attend Alabama State Teacher’s
College High School, she dropped out to care for ill family members.
Image Ownership: Public Domain
After marrying barber and local political activist Raymond Parks in 1931, Rosa became
an active member of Montgomery’s NAACP where she served as youth director and later
as the secretary. She also participated in
the organization’s voter registration drives.
Parks became an advocate of desegregation and took pride in being a member
of the national organization that won the Brown
v. Board of Education case.
On December 1, 1955, following the end of her shift as a seamstress for the Montgomery
Fair department store, Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue city bus. Passengers filled the bus; Parks and other African
American riders were asked to give up their seats once the “whites only” section
had filled. Parks refused. Like other advocates of desegregation, Parks placed
herself in danger by refusing to follow Montgomery’s segregation laws. She was arrested and received a $14 fine. This was Parks’s second encounter with the bus
driver James Blake (he had kicked Parks off a bus many years prior to this incident).
Parks called local NAACP president E.D. Nixon, and informed him of her arrest. Within
hours, the Women’s Political Council (WPC)—which was formed in 1946 to address the
grievances of black bus patrons in Montgomery—sprang into action. The WPC printed flyers and brochures, phoned potential
supporters, and created carpools, marking the beginning of the 381-day Montgomery
Bus Boycott. After a long protest, the US
Supreme Court declared bus segregation unconstitutional in 1957.
Following the boycott, Parks moved to Detroit, Michigan with her husband and worked
as a seamstress before taking a job as an assistant to Detroit Congressman John
Conyers. In 1987, she founded the Rosa and
Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, which teaches students about the Civil
Rights movement and encourages them to strive for success.
Parks received numerous honors, including over 40 honorary degrees, the Medal of
Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, and two NAACP image awards. The State of Michigan honors Parks each February
4 on Rosa Parks Day. Troy State University
in Alabama honored Parks by constructing a museum and library that bears her name. The Henry Ford Museum in Michigan also preserved
Parks’ legacy by purchasing the Cleveland Avenue bus she rode on December 1, 1955. In addition to authoring several books about her
story, in 2002, Parks teamed up with CBS to produce a biographical film titled “The
Rosa Parks Story.”
On October 5, 2005, Rosa Parks passed away in Detroit. She was 92 years old. Later that month she became one of only 30 Americans
and the first woman to lie in state below the Rotunda in the nation’s Capitol building. In 2013 her statue was added to Statuary Hall
in the same building. She was the first African
American woman so honored.
Edna Chappell McKenzie, “Rosa Parks” in Black Women in America: Social Activism, edited by Darlene Clark Hine (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1997); Lisa Hill, “Rosa Parks” in African American Women: a Biographical Dictionary, edited by Dorothy C. Salem (New York: Garland Publishing, 1993); Rosa and Raymond Parks Institution for Self Development http://www.rosaparks.org/bio.html (accessed November 11, 2007); E.R. Shipp, “Rosa Parks, 92, Founding Symbol of Civil Rights Movement Dies,” New York Times, October 25, 2005; Patricia Sullivan, “Bus Ride Shook a Nation's Conscience,” Washington Post, October 25, 2005; Andrea James, “Rosa Parks Biography,” PBS NewsHour, October 25, 2005, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/remember/july-dec05/parks_biography.html (accessed December 29, 2013).
University of Washington