Editor’s note: February 4 marked the centennial of Rosa Park’s birth.
–by Sarah Lewis
Many of us are familiar with the name Rosa Parks yet unfamiliar with her continued efforts to end segregation.
Rosa Parks was born Rosa McCauley on February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama. Her mother was an Alabama school teacher and greatly valued education. Rosa eventually married Raymond Parks and they went on to become respected residents of Montgomery, Alabama, where she worked as a seamstress. At that time, Montgomery was governed by Jim Crow laws, which dictated which schools African Americans could attend, which water fountains they could drink from, and even which books they could read from the “black only” library. Rosa became the chapter secretary for the NAACP in December 1943.
Over ten years later, Rosa was commuting home on a Montgomery bus that was often avoided by black residents due to the demeaning “Negroes-in-back” policy. The segregation laws at the time stated that front seats were reserved for white citizens, while the seats behind them were designated for black citizens. What many people don’t realize is that at the time Montgomery had contradicting laws on segregation. One law stated that segregation must be enforced at all times while another law stated that no person of any color could be asked to give up their seat even if there were no remaining seats on the bus. Parks was asked to give up her seat when a white citizen boarded the bus and no additional “white seats” were available. She refused and was taken into police custody shortly after. In Parks’ autobiography she 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…No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in”.
On December 5, 1955 Parks was found guilty of violating segregation laws while black citizens of Montgomery Alabama boycotted all local buses. Over 35,000 flyers were distributed the evening before the trial to alert citizens to the boycott, which led to an even greater movement. Taking advantage of the boycott’s momentum, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed, with Dr. Martin Luther King elected as the group’s president. With the boycott came rage and violence, but this violence did not deter boycotters; it instead raised interest in both the national and international press. On November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court ruled bus segregation unconstitutional, helping make Rosa Parks “the mother of the civil rights movement.”
In the years following the boycott, Parks and her husband decided to move to Detroit, where she was an administrative aide for Rep. John Conyers, Jr. until her retirement in 1988. During this time, Parks also co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development as a youth outreach program. She spent time traveling to attend civil-rights events and received a Congressional Gold Medal.
After her death in 2005, Parks was honored by Congress and became the first woman in history to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda. Congress has also commissioned a statue of her for its collections; it will be dedicated this month in National Statuary Hall.