ROSA PARKS: "Mother of the Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement"
Rosa Parks' arrest for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger started a boycott of the city bus line that lasted 381 days. This bus boycott led to the 1956 Supreme Court ruling declaring segregation illegal on public buses, an important event in the civil rights movement.
Rosa Louise McCauley, granddaughter of slaves, was born on February 4, 1913 to her parents, James and Leona McCauley. She has one brother named Sylvester. When Rosa was two years old her father abandoned the family. Rosa, her mother and brother then moved to Rosa's grandparents' farmhouse. As a child, Rosa feared hearing the Ku Klux Klan ride at night, listening to lynchings, and being afraid the house would burn down. She attended an old, one-room schoolhouse for African-American children which was only open five months a year and just went up to sixth grade. In 1924, at age 11, she was sent to Montgomery to continue her studies. Five years later, she left school in order to care for her sick grandmother, and later, her mother. Rosa was responsible for all the cooking, cleaning, shopping, and sewing.
In 1932 when Rosa was twenty years old, she married Raymond Parks, a barber and civil rights activist. With Raymond's support, Rosa finally graduated from high school in 1934. Together, they worked for the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Later, she joined a group called the Voters League. She helped black citizens pass tests that had been set up to make it difficult for them to pass, so they could then obtain the right to vote.
In 1955, Montgomery, AL had a municipal law which required black citizens to ride in the back of the city's buses. On Dec. 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks, at forty-two year old, boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus after working all day as a seamstress for the Montgomery Fair Department Store. She took a seat in the fifth row which was the first row of the "Colored Section." The bus continued along its route. After several more stops the bus was full. The driver noticed that all the seats in the "Whites Only" section were taken, and that more white people hade just climbed aboard. The driver, James F. Blake, the same driver who had put her off a bus 12 years earlier for refusing to get off and re-board through the back door, ordered Rosa's row to give up their seats and move back. The other people in her row moved to the back of the bus, but she refused to move. Blake called the police and had her arrested. Her work in the NAACP helped her know what not to do. She knew not to frown, struggle, shout, or refuse to pay the fine.
Local civil rights leader and former president of the NAACP Alabama Chapter, E.D. Nixon, was excited at the news of Mrs. Parks arrest because now he had the perfect test case. Parks was morally above criticism in that she was married and employed, she had a calmness about her, and she had a keen understanding of the politics surrounding her situation. She was the perfect plaintiff for his test case against bus segregation.
She was arrested on a Thursday; bail was posted by Clifford Durr, the white lawyer whose wife, Virginia Durr, had employed Parks as a seamstress. Mr. Durr could have had the charges dropped because technically she was not required to give up her seat when there were no other seats available on the bus. Rosa's husband was terrified she would be lynched and wanted the charges dismissed. But Rosa and her friends were determined to continue their fight and would not have the charges dismissed. After talking it over with her mother and husband, Rosa Parks agreed to challenge the legality of Montgomery's segregation laws. During a midnight meeting of the Women's Political Council led by Joanne Robinson, it was decided to boycott the bus system, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott was born. Jo Ann and her students stayed up all night to make and copy 35,000 fliers to distribute all over the city, "asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial..."
On December 5th and for almost a year after, the black population of Montgomery stayed off the buses, either walking, riding bikes, carpooling, or catching one of the black cabs stopping at every city bus stop for a discounted rate of 10 cents per customer the same as the standard bus fare.
Mrs. Parks made her way through the mobs at the courthouse to go to her trial. She appeared modest and conservatively dressed. The trial lasted 30 minutes. As expected, she was found guilty of violating the segregation law, given a suspended sentence and fined fourteen dollars.
That afternoon, the Montgomery Improvement Association was formed. The members elected as their president the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the young minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, because he was new to the community and had not made any enemies. That evening, addressing a crowd at the Holt Street Baptist Church, King declared in a deep, resonant voice, "There comes a time that people get tired." King asked that the protesters fight without violence.
Leaving the church that night, the people had three simple demands: 1.) Change the law that says African-American passengers must give up their seats to white passengers. 2.) Bus drivers must be courteous to all riders. 3.) Hire African-American bus drivers. Though the demands were small, city commissioners and the bus company still refused to budge. Instead of weakening the boycotters' determination, the city's refusal only pushed the protesters to demand an end to bus segregation altogether. 70% of the people that rode the bus were African American and they were determined to stick with the boycott no matter what the repercussions. By the end of January nearly a third of the bus drivers had been laid off and the company lost a lot of money.
In 1956, the case went before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in Gayle v. Browder that Montgomery's Jim Crowe laws, which enforced strict racial segregation in public places were unconstitutional because they deprived blacks of equal protection of the laws guaranteed in the 14th amendment. The city agreed to desegregate the buses and the bus boycott ended.
After moving to Michigan in 1957 to avoid further harassment, Rosa Parks continued the fight for equal rights and treatment for African Americans. On several occasions, Mrs. Parks returned to Montgomery to support Dr. King in demonstrations and civil rights marches. Mrs. Parks' former residence in Montgomery is on the National Register of Historic Places and a street was named in her honor. In 1977, Rosa's husband died. In 1987, Rosa opened the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development. Its ongoing mission is to motivate and direct youth to achieve their highest potential. In 1988, she retired. In 1994, she was mugged in her home by Joseph Skipper and had $53 stolen from her. She is still living in Detroit.
Written by Jessica Fry