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Rosa Parks
1913 -

 


Her simple act of protest galvanized America's civil rights revolution
By RITA DOVE for Time Magazine

How she sat there, the time right inside a place so wrong it was ready.
— From Rosa, in On the Bus with Rosa Parks by Rita Dove
 

 

We know the story. One December evening, a woman left work and boarded a bus for home. She was tired; her feet ached. But this was Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, and as the bus became crowded, the woman, a black woman, was ordered to give up her seat to a white passenger. When she remained seated, that simple decision eventually led to the disintegration of institutionalized segregation in the South, ushering in a new era of the civil rights movement.

This, anyway, was the story I had heard from the time I was curious enough to eavesdrop on adult conversations. I was three years old when a white bus driver warned Rosa Parks, "Well, I'm going to have you arrested," and she replied, "You may go on and do so." As a child, I didn't understand how doing nothing had caused so much activity, but I recognized the template: David slaying the giant Goliath, or the boy who saved his village by sticking his finger in the dike. And perhaps it is precisely the lure of fairy-tale retribution that colours the lens we look back through. Parks was 42 years old when she refused to give up her seat. She has insisted that her feet were not aching; she was, by her own testimony, no more tired than usual. And she did not plan her fateful act: "I did not get on the bus to get arrested," she has said. "I got on the bus to go home."

Montgomery's segregation laws were complex: blacks were required to pay their fare to the driver, then get off and reboard through the back door. Sometimes the bus would drive off before the paid-up customers made it to the back entrance. If the white section was full and another white customer entered, blacks were required to give up their seats and move farther to the back; a black person was not even allowed to sit across the aisle from whites. These humiliations were compounded by the fact that two-thirds of the bus riders in Montgomery were black.

Parks was not the first to be detained for this offense. Eight months earlier, Claudette Colvin, 15, refused to give up her seat and was arrested. Black activists met with this girl to determine if she would make a good test case — as secretary of the local N.A.A.C.P., Parks attended the meeting — but it was decided that a more "upstanding" candidate was necessary to withstand the scrutiny of the courts and the press. And then in October, a young woman named Mary Louise Smith was arrested; N.A.A.C.P. leaders rejected her too as their vehicle, looking for someone more able to withstand media scrutiny. Smith paid the fine and was released.

Six weeks later, the time was ripe. The facts, rubbed shiny for retelling, are these: On Dec. 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks, seamstress for the Montgomery Fair department store, boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus. She took a seat in the fifth row — the first row of the "Colored Section." The driver was the same one who had put her off a bus 12 years earlier for refusing to get off and reboard through the back door. ("He was still mean-looking," she has said.) Did that make her stubborn? Or had her work in the N.A.A.C.P. sharpened her sensibilities so that she knew what to do — or more precisely, what not to do: Don't frown, don't struggle, don't shout, don't pay the fine?

At the news of the arrest, local civil rights leader E.D. Nixon exclaimed, "My God, look what segregation has put in my hands!" Parks was not only above moral reproach (securely married, reasonably employed) but possessed a quiet fortitude as well as political savvy — in short, she was the ideal plaintiff for a test case.

She was arrested on a Thursday; bail was posted by Clifford Durr, the white lawyer whose wife had employed Parks as a seamstress. That evening, after talking it over with her mother and husband, Rosa Parks agreed to challenge the constitutionality of Montgomery's segregation laws. During a midnight meeting of the Women's Political Council, 35,000 handbills were mimeographed for distribution to all black schools the next morning. The message was simple:

"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."

Monday came. Rain threatened, yet the black population of Montgomery stayed off the buses, either walking or catching one of the black cabs stopping at every municipal bus stop for 10 cents per customer — standard bus fare. Meanwhile, Parks was scheduled to appear in court. As she made her way through the throngs at the courthouse, a demure figure in a long-sleeved black dress with white collar and cuffs, a trim black velvet hat, gray coat and white gloves, a girl in the crowd caught sight of her and cried out, "Oh, she's so sweet. They've messed with the wrong one now!"

Yes, indeed. The trial lasted 30 min., with the expected conviction and penalty. That afternoon, the Montgomery Improvement Association was formed. So as not to ruffle any local activists' feathers, the members elected as their president a relative newcomer to Montgomery, the young minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. That evening, addressing a crowd gathered at the Holt Street Baptist Church, King declared in that sonorous, ringing voice millions the world over would soon thrill to: "There comes a time that people get tired." When he was finished, Parks stood up so the audience could see her. She did not speak; there was no need to. Here I am, her silence said, among you.

And she has been with us ever sinceva persistent symbol of human dignity in the face of brutal authority. The famous U.P.I. photo (actually taken more than a year later, on Dec. 21, 1956, the day Montgomery's public transportation system was legally integrated) is a study of calm strength. She is looking out the bus window, her hands resting in the folds of her checked dress, while a white man sits, unperturbed, in the row behind her. That clear profile, the neat cloche and eyeglasses and sensible coat — she could have been my mother, anybody's favorite aunt.

History is often portrayed as a string of arias in a grand opera, all baritone intrigues and tenor heroics. Some of the most tumultuous events, however, have been provoked by serendipity — the assassination of an inconsequential archduke spawned World War I, a kicked-over lantern may have sparked the Great Chicago Fire. One cannot help wondering what role Martin Luther King Jr. would have played in the civil rights movement if the opportunity had not presented itself that first evening of the boycott — if Rosa Parks had chosen a row farther back from the outset, or if she had missed the bus altogether.

At the end of this millennium (and a particularly noisy century), it is the modesty of Rosa Parks' example that sustains us. It is no less than the belief in the power of the individual, that cornerstone of the American Dream, that she inspires, along with the hope that all of us — even the least of us — could be that brave, that serenely human, when crunch time comes.
 


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On December 1, 1955, Rosa Lee Parks (née McCauley; born 1913) refused to relinquish her seat to a white passenger on a racially segregated Montgomery, Alabama bus. She was arrested and fined but her action led to a successful boycott of the Montgomery buses by African American riders.

Born Rosa McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama, on February 4, 1913, the young girl did not seem destined for fame. Her mother was a teacher and her father, a carpenter. When she was still young she moved with her mother and brother to Pine Level, Alabama, to live with her grandparents. A hard-working family, they were able to provide her with the necessities of life but few luxuries while attempting to shield her from the harsh realities of racial segregation. Rosa attended the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, graduated from the all-African American Booker T. Washington High School in 1928, and attended Alabama State College in Montgomery for a short time.

She married Raymond Parks, a barber, in 1932. Both Rosa and her husband were active in various civil rights causes, such as voter registration. Parks worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council and in 1943 was elected to serve as the secretary of the Montgomery branch. This group worked to dismantle the barriers of racial segregation in education and public accommodations but made little progress during the 1940s and early 1950s. In the summer of 1955 white friends paid Parks' expenses for a two-week interracial seminar at Tennessee's Highlander Folk School, a program designed to help people to train for civil rights activism.

Parks worked at various jobs over the years - as a housekeeper, an insurance saleswoman, and a seamstress. In 1955, while working at Montgomery Fair department store as a tailor's assistant, she discovered her name in the headlines. On the fateful night of December 1st, she was very tired as she headed for her bus, but had no plans for initiating a protest. According to the segregation laws in Montgomery, white passengers were given the front seats on the bus. Even if no white riders boarded, African Americans were not allowed to sit in those seats. If white passengers filled their allotted seats, African American riders - who had to pay the same amount of bus fare - had to give their seats to the whites. All of the bus drivers were instructed to have African Americans who disobeyed the rules removed from the bus, arrested, and fined. Some of the bus drivers demanded that African Americans pay their fares up front, get off the bus, and reenter through the back doors so that they would not pass by the seats of white patrons.

On December 1, 1955, Parks, who had taken a seat directly behind the white section, was asked to yield her seat to white passengers. Parks recognized the driver as one who had evicted her from a bus 12 years before when she refused to reenter through the back door after paying her fare. The bus driver threatened to have her arrested but she remained where she was. He then stopped the bus, brought in some policemen, and had Parks taken to police headquarters.

Certainly her case was not a unique; African Americans had been arrested for disobeying the segregation laws many times before. However, in 1954 the Supreme Court had rendered an important decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which held that educational segregation was inherently illegal. The decision encouraged African Americans to fight more boldly for the end of racial segregation in every area of American life. Thus, NAACP officials and Montgomery church leaders decided that Parks' arrest could provide the necessary impetus for a successful bus boycott. They asked Montgomery's African American riders - who comprised over 70 percent of the bus company's business - to stop riding the buses until the company was willing to revise its policies toward African American riders and hire African American bus drivers.

Meeting at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the ministers and their congregations formed the Montgomery Improvement Association and elected the young Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. as president. The boycott was extremely successful, lasting over 380 days. When the case was taken to the Supreme Court, the Justices declared that segregation of the Montgomery buses was illegal and officially desegregated them on December 20, 1956.

Parks and some of her family members, fired by their employers or continually harassed by angry whites, decided in 1957 to move to Detroit, Michigan. There they had a great deal of difficulty finding jobs, but Parks was finally employed by John Conyers, an African American member of the U.S. House of Representatives. She served as his receptionist and then staff assistant for 25 years while continuing her work with the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and serving as a deaconess at the Saint Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Parks received numerous awards, including an honorary degree from Shaw College in Detroit, the 1979 NAACP Spingarn Medal, and an annual Freedom Award presented in her honor by the SCLC. In 1980 she was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize and in 1984 the Eleanor Roosevelt Women of Courage Award. In 1988 she founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, to train African American youth for leadership roles, and began serving as the institute's president. In 1989 her accomplishments were honored at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Parks was in demand as a public speaker and traveled extensively to discuss her role in the civil rights movement.

In September 1994 Parks was beaten and robbed in her Detroit home. She fully recovered from this incident and remained active in African American issues. In October 1995 she participated in the Million Man March in Washington D.C., giving an inspirational speech.

Fellow civil rights leaders, friends, and family of Parks, expressed concern about her demanding schedule and finances in September 1997. They were unable to get answers from Parks' attorney, Gregory Reed, and personal assistant, Elaine Steele, who together had formed The Parks Legacy, a corporation that controlled the public property rights to Parks' image. According to court records, the "selling" of Parks included fees for autographs and pictures of the civil rights legend, her appearance in a rock video, and her image on a phone-calling card. An article in the Detroit News noted, "Civil rights leaders and marketing experts fear the products cheapen Parks' image and legacy as the mother of the civil rights movement."


 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 14 December, 2008