Parks, Rosa (1913—)

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Parks, Rosa (1913—)

Veteran African-American activist whose arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, triggered a black boycott of the bus line and helped launch the civil-rights movement in the United States. Born Rosa Louise McCauley on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama; daughter of James McCauley (a carpenter) and Leona (Edwards) McCauley (a schoolteacher); attended segregated schools in Pine Level and Montgomery, Alabama; received high school diploma, 1933; married Raymond Parks, in 1932 (died 1977); no children.


Spingarn Medal from National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1979); Martin Luther King, Jr., Nonviolent Peace Prize (1980); Eleanor Roosevelt Woman of Courage Award from Wonder Woman Foundation (1984); received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1996); awarded the Congressional gold medal (1999); awarded at least ten honorary degrees.

Sent to Montgomery to live with relatives and attend Montgomery Industrial School for Girls (1924); became secretary of the local NAACP, forced from city bus for using "white" door (December 1943); after repeated efforts, was registered to vote (1945); became adviser to NAACP Youth Council (1949); arrested and convicted of refusing, in violation of Alabama law, to surrender a bus seat to a white man (December 1955); participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955–56); U.S. Supreme Court affirms lower court decision declaring bus segregation to be unconstitutional (November 13, 1956); moved to Detroit (1957); participated in March on Washington (1963); participated in Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights (March 1965); worked in Detroit office of Congressman John Conyers (1965–88); beaten and robbed by a burglar (1994); bust of Rosa Parks unveiled at the Smithsonian Institution (February 28, 1991); awarded the Congressional gold medal (1999); awarded first Governor's Medal of Honor for Extraordinary Courage from state of Alabama (December 1, 2000); Rosa Parks Library and Museum at Troy State University opened (December 1, 2000).


Rosa Parks: My Story (Dial, 1992); Quiet Strength (Zondervan, 1994).

Shortly after 5:00 PM, on Thursday, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a seamstress at the Montgomery Fair department store, caught the Cleveland Avenue bus on her way home from work. By city ordinance, Montgomery buses were racially segregated. The first ten seats on the Cleveland Avenue bus were reserved for whites; the remaining 26 seats were for blacks. Parks took a seat in the 11th row, along with two other black women and a black man.

Two blocks later, after the bus stopped at the Empire Theater, white passengers filled the front of the bus. The white driver, James F. Blake, ordered the four black passengers in the 11th row to stand and make room for one white man. Strictly speaking, under the Montgomery ordinance, Blake lacked the authority to extend the white section of the bus, but Alabama state law seemed to give drivers broad discretion to maintain segregation on their vehicles. At first, none of the blacks moved. Blake repeated his order. "Y'all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats." Everyone but Parks moved to the back of the bus. When Blake told her, "I'm going to have you arrested," Parks replied, "You may go on and do so." As hurried and nervous passengers began to scramble off the bus, Blake called the police, and within minutes Rosa Parks was under arrest. That arrest produced a yearlong black boycott of Montgomery's buses, catapulted Martin Luther King, Jr., to national prominence as a civil-rights leader, and marked the beginning of a grassroots movement for racial equality in the United States. It also earned Parks a reputation as "the first lady of civil rights" and "the mother of the civil rights movement." "To this day," writes Rita Dove , she "remains a symbol of dignity in the face of brute authority…. 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."

Rosa Parks grew up in a segregated society. Her mother Leona Edwards McCauley was a rural schoolteacher. Her father James McCauley was an itinerant carpenter and stone mason. They met in Pine Level, Alabama, where Leona taught school and James' brother pastored a black church. The couple married in April 1912 and moved to Tuskegee, where Rosa was born on February 4, 1913. The family soon moved again, to Abbeville, Alabama, James' hometown, and then returned to Pine Level. Shortly after leaving Abbeville, Leona gave birth to a son, Sylvester McCauley, and at about the same time, James left Pine Level to look for work in the North. Rosa, not quite three years old, had little contact with her father as she grew older.

At Pine Level, Leona and the children lived with her parents, Sylvester and Rose Edwards . Since Sylvester was the son of a white plantation owner and a slave housekeeper, Rosa was of mixed African and Scotch-Irish descent. Influenced by her mother and grandfather, Rosa became a studious, well-mannered child who understood and resented the dangers and indignities faced by blacks living in the Deep South. In later years, Parks said she never saw a member of the Ku Klux Klan as a child, but she recalled her grandfather keeping a gun in the house for protection. "If people said the Klan was going to come," she remembered, "you'd stay inside." A small, light-complected girl, Parks also remembered Grandfather Edwards attending a rally of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the black nationalist organization founded by Marcus Garvey, that was active in the 1920s. The UNIA rejected her grandfather because, ironically, he was too light-skinned. Parks said years later, "that ended our talk about going back to Africa."

I did not get on the bus to get arrested. I got on the bus to go home.

—Rosa Parks

In 1924, Parks' mother sent her to the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, a private school operated by Alice L. White . Miss White's School, as it was commonly known, enjoyed an excellent academic reputation, but the headmistress, a white liberal from Melrose, Massachusetts, was generally ostracized by Montgomery's white community, and the school closed before Rosa could graduate. She later attended Montgomery's Booker T. Washington Junior High School and then took classes under student-teachers at Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes (now Alabama State University). Montgomery did not have a regular public high school for blacks until 1938. Parks' mother hoped her daughter could become a teacher herself, and Rosa apparently considered a nursing career, but at age 16, as Leona's health began to fail, Rosa quit school to look after her mother and her younger brother.

In 1931, Rosa met Raymond Parks, a black barber from Randolph County, Alabama. Raymond, who had endured an even more difficult childhood than Rosa, had little formal education, but he stimulated her interest in civil rights. "Parks," she said (she always referred to him by his last name), "was … the first real activist I ever met." A member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Raymond helped with the legal defense (apparently by raising money) of the "Scottsboro boys," a group of very young black men convicted, on all but nonexistent evidence, of raping two white women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price . Meanwhile, Rosa returned to school and finally earned a high school degree, although few good jobs were open to educated black women in Montgomery in the 1930s. Rosa Parks worked as a housekeeper, an insurance agent, an office clerk, and eventually as an assistant tailor at Montgomery Fair. Soft spoken, dignified, and a faithful member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Parks came to be considered a part of Montgomery's black middle class, but her inability to find a suitable job, along with a general pattern of racial discrimination, fueled in her what historian J. Mills Thornton has described as "a certain bitterness."

In 1943, Parks joined the NAACP after she saw a picture of Johnnie Carr, a classmate from Miss White's School, in the local black newspaper. Carr was serving as the organization's secretary. Though Raymond was no longer an active member, Rosa replaced her old friend as secretary, and held the post until 1956. She ran the Montgomery office for E.D. Nixon, the state president of the NAACP and an official in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, an important black trade union. As secretary, Parks reported acts of violence against Alabama blacks to the national headquarters, and she encouraged Montgomery blacks to register to vote. She tried to register too, first in 1943 and again in 1944, before finally becoming, in 1945, one of the few registered black voters in Alabama. Parks also served as an adviser to the NAACP's local Youth Council and tried, unsuccessfully, to win African-American teenagers access to Montgomery's main public library.

A major grievance of Montgomery blacks was the city's segregated bus system, the primary means of transportation for 50,000 African-Americans. Besides being physically separated from whites, blacks experienced other forms of discrimination on buses as well. They were required, for example, to pay their fare at the front of the vehicle and then leave the bus to re-enter through a back door. The drivers, many blacks said, would sometimes pull away before black passengers could get back on the bus. In December 1943, Parks herself had been ordered off a bus for using the "white-only" front door. The bus driver "wanted me to get off the bus and go around and get back on," she said. "I wouldn't do it." Livid, he grabbed her coat sleeve and forced her off the bus. "I was afraid he would attack me physically," she said. For the next 12 years, Parks remembered the face of that driver. "I saw him occasionally when I was waiting for the bus, but I didn't ride the bus if he was driving."

Even before Parks' arrest in 1955, Jo Ann Robinson , an English professor at Alabama State and a member of the Women's Political Council (WPC), a black civic group, had been contemplating a bus boycott, as had other African-American leaders. The NAACP was also looking for a test case to challenge bus segregation in court. Other black women, in particular Claudette Colvin , had run afoul of the system by refusing to surrender seats to white passengers. In the spring of 1955, Montgomery police physically removed the 15-year-old Colvin from a bus. But NAACP officials decided not to pursue her case when they learned she was pregnant and unmarried. They needed a representative who would be above reproach, and Rosa Parks was perfect for the role. As civil-rights leader Ralph David Abernathy, then pastor of Montgomery's black First Baptist Church, explained, "She had an air of gentility about her that usually evoked respect among whites as well as blacks, and I doubt that anybody who knew her could have imagined that she would ever end up in jail." Yet Parks said later that she had not intended to become a test case. "I wasn't planning to be arrested at all," she said. "I had a full weekend planned. It was December, Christmas-time. It was the busy time of year, and I was preparing for the weekend workshop for the Youth Council." On the other hand, she did not, as legend has it, refuse to move simply because she was too tired. "The only tired I was," she has written, "was tired of giving in." In a hurry to get home that night, and with her mind on other things, Parks had not noticed as she boarded the bus that it was being driven by the same man with whom she had tangled 12 years earlier. "He was still mean looking," she said.

By the weekend following her arrest, the WPC, local NAACP officials, and a group of black ministers had organized a bus boycott to begin on Monday, December 5, the day Parks was to be tried in the City Recorder's Court. After a brief hearing, a white judge fined Parks ten dollars, plus four dollars in court costs. Her lawyers immediately announced that they would appeal. On the same day, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was organized to direct the boycott. Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., at the time the young minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the MIA created an efficient network of taxis, private cars, and church station wagons to provide an alternative to the city buses. Parks served on the MIA board of directors. For the next year, few blacks rode the city system. But Montgomery officials refused to desegregate the buses until the Supreme Court, in November 1956, upheld a lower court decision declaring segregation on Alabama's city buses to be unconstitutional. The boycott itself had not ended discrimination on the buses, but it set a precedent for the kind of peaceful mass protest that would characterize the civil-rights movement for the next decade and help produce such landmark legislation as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Parks meanwhile lost her job at Montgomery Fair, and Raymond quit his job as a barber at the nearby Maxwell Air Force Base. Alabama authorities indicted her, and dozens of other black leaders, for violating an anti-boycott law, but her case never came to trial. In 1957, to escape harassment, Parks, her mother, and Raymond moved to Detroit, where her brother Sylvester had lived since the end of World War II. She spent 1958 at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, where she served as hostess for visitors to the historic black college, but she soon returned to Detroit to be with her family. In Detroit, she worked as a seamstress, became active in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and served as a deaconess at St. Matthew AME Church. She attended the civil-rights rally climaxing the 1963 March on Washington and heard Martin Luther King deliver his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. In March 1965, she participated in King's march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery in support of black voting rights. From 1965 to 1988, she worked in the Detroit office of U.S. congressional representative John Conyers, a black Democrat. Parks has remained active in recent years, although her husband Raymond died in 1977, and her mother died in 1978. In 1987, Parks founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development to promote the education of disadvantaged young people.

Parks made headlines once more in September 1994 when a burglar entered her home, stole $50 in cash, and beat her in the face and chest. The Detroit community was outraged, as were people around the world. A suspect was arrested within hours.

In recent years, Parks has received many honors. In 1996, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton. In 1999, she was given the Congressional gold medal, the highest civilian award given by Congress. Her portrait hangs in Detroit's Museum of African-American History and a Rosa Parks bust is on display at the Smithsonian Institution. "I have more honorary degrees and plaques and awards than I can count," she wrote in 1992, "and I appreciate and cherish every single one of them." On December 1, 2000, 45 years to the day after she refused to give up her seat on the bus, Parks attended the dedication of Troy State University's Rosa Parks Library and Museum, which stands on the streetcorner where she was arrested. Prior to the ceremony, Parks was awarded Alabama's first Governor's Medal of Honor for Extraordinary Courage. Montgomery's old Cleveland Avenue, where Parks was arrested in December 1955, is today Rosa Parks Boulevard.


Abernathy, Ralph David. And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography. NY: Harper & Row, 1989.

Dove, Rita. "The Torchbearer," in Time. June 14, 1999.

Garrow, David J., ed. The Walking City: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955–1956. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1989.

Hill, Ruth Edmonds. "Rosa Parks" in Jessie Carney Smith, ed., Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

The New York Times. December 2, 2000, p. A16.

Parks, Rosa, with Jim Haskins. Rosa Parks: My Story. NY: Dial Books, 1992.

Ragghianti, Marie. "I Wanted to Be Treated Like a Human Being," in Parade. January 19, 1992.

Robinson, Jo Ann. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.

suggested reading:

Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Brinkley, Douglas. Rosa Parks. "Penguin Lives" series. Lipper-Viking Books, 2000.

Parks, Rosa, and Gregory Reed. Quiet Strength. Zondervan, 1995.

Sitkoff, Harvard. The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954–1992. Rev. ed. NY: Hill and Wang, 1993.


Black Women Oral History Project Interview with Rosa Parks, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA.

The Rosa L. Parks Collection, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan.

Rosa Parks Library and Museum at Troy State University, Montgomery, Alabama, includes an interactive exhibit reenacting Parks' arrest as well as a statue of Parks and documentation of the bus boycott.

Jeff Broadwater , Assistant Professor of History, Barton College, Wilson, North Carolina