Rosa Parks: Feisty Champion of Civil Rights

This resolute activist’s refusal to surrender her seat to a white male passenger aboard a bus triggered protests across the United States, changing the country’s view of black people and redirecting the course of history.
Renowned civil rights activist, Rosa Parks, became the first living person to be honoured with a holiday, when in 1997, Published(Illustration: Unnikrishnan)
Renowned civil rights activist, Rosa Parks, became the first living person to be honoured with a holiday, when in 1997, Published(Illustration: Unnikrishnan)
Updated on Aug 26, 2019 10:36 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByHT Correspondent

Born on February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama, Rosa Louise McCauley was the first child of James and Leona Edwards McCauley. While both her parents were farmers, they held other jobs as well – her father was a carpenter, and her mother was a teacher. Both Rosa and her brother, Sylvester McCauley grew up under the care of their maternal grandmother after their parents had separated.

At age 11, her mother enrolled Rosa at the private institution Miss White’s School for Girls. After the stint at Miss White’s School, she joined the Alabama State Teacher’s College (present-day Alabama State University) in Montgomery.

Young activist

Growing up in the segregated southern United States, Rosa had to frequently face racial discrimination and violence. She became active in the Civil Rights Movement at a young age.

At the age of 19, Rosa married a local barber named Raymond Parks. Since he was unable to complete formal education due to racial discrimination, Raymond encouraged Rosa to complete her formal education. She obtained a diploma in 1934 and began working as a seamstress in Montgomery.

Both Raymond and Rosa were also associated with social justice organisations such as National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that opposed racial discrimination. Eventually, Rosa served as an elected secretary of the NAACP chapter in Montgomery.

Montgomery Boycott

On the evening of December 1, 1955, Rosa, then 42, sat just behind the whites-only section i.e. the first 10 seats, aboard the bus. The bus driver bade her to vacate the seat and make room for a white passenger who had just boarded the vehicle but Rosa refused.

She was soon arrested. Under a Montgomery city ordinance of the time, the bus driver was responsible for keeping white and black passengers separate and possessed “the powers of a police officer…for the purpose of carrying out” the required segregation. So when Rosa refused to give up the seat, the driver summoned the police and had her arrested for violation of the city code. Her arrest and trial provoked the city’s African-American community. Under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., the community organised a crippling boycott of the city’s bus system.

The 381-day resistance drew international attention to the ugly reality of the discriminatory laws in Montgomery and elsewhere in the country. The boycott ended victoriously in December 1956, after the US Supreme Court declared Montgomery’s system of segregated seating as unconstitutional.

Legacy

In 1957, Raymond and Rosa moved to Detroit, Michigan. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference established the annual Rosa Parks Freedom Award. In 1987, she co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development to provide career training for young people.

She has been honoured with many awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1996) and the Congressional Gold Medal (1999). Still recognised globally as a symbol of freedom and equality, Rosa died on October 24, 2005, at the age of 92.

Interesting Facts

1. Many have tried to diminish Parks’ role in the boycott by depicting her as a seamstress who did not want to move because she was tired. Years later, she shared her true motivation: “I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a work day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was only 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

2. Parks wrote four books — two each with Gregory J Reed (Quiet Strength; Dear Mrs. Parks: A Dialogue With Today’s Youth) and with Jim Haskins (her biography; book for preschool children).

3. She became the first living person to be honoured with a holiday, when in 1997, Published Act no.28 designated the first Monday following February 4, as Mrs Rosa Parks’ Day in her home state of Michigan, USA.

4. Rosa was among Time Magazine’s most influential people of the 20th century, and was honoured with Lifetime Achievement Award from Institute for Research on Women & Gender, Stanford.

Sources: Britannica, rosaparks.org,womenshistory.org & NatGeo Kids

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