In connection to Black History, everyone knows the name of Martin Luther King and his “American dream”. Few, outside the US are acquainted with Mrs Rosa Parks, the African American civil rights activist, christened affectionately “the first lady of the civil rights”. Both her birthday 4th February and the day of the famous Montgomery Bus Incident December 1st, are celebrated as Rosa Parks Day at California and Ohio.
Rosa Louise McCauley was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, on February 4, 1913. She moved with her parents, James and Leona McCauley, to Pine Level, Alabama, at age 2 to reside with Leona’s parents. Leona was a teacher and she was very enthusiastic about her children’s education. After her parents separated, Rosa had to discontinue her education to look after her ailing grandmother. In 1932, at the age of 19, Rosa married an older man, Raymond Parks, a barber and a long-time member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People(NAACP, formed in 1909). He was extremely supportive of Rosa’s education and helped her earn her high school degree.
Rosa had become a very known member of the vibrant black community of Montgomery, facing hurdles everyday due to Jim Crow’s segregation laws. At that time, Montgomery was fraught with racist rules. Blacks could attend only certain schools of ill repute, could drink only from specified water fountains, could borrow books only from the “black” library. Soon, Rosa too enrolled herself in the NAACP and became chapter secretary. The regular sessions were a great inspiration to her, then an emerging activist. Besides this, she was a seamstress by profession, and thus not completely financially dependent on her husband.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, boarded a Montgomery City bus to go home from work. Usually blacks did not commute by buses because of their rather cruel and demeaning reservation policies. Buses at that time had 10-15 seats reserved for whites. She sat near the middle of the bus, just behind these seats. Soon all of the seats in the bus were filled. When a white man boarded the bus, the driver (following the standard accepted norm of back subjugation) insisted that all four blacks sitting just behind the white section give up their seats so that the man could sit there. The three others obeyed. Mrs. Parks, quietly refused to give up her seat. The bus was stopped, there was a huge hue and cry, and she was arrested. Later that night she was granted bail by E.D Nixon, president of the local branch of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union. She had worked with Nixon before and they were close associates. After the incident on the bus, it was Nixon’s idea to boycott the buses on the day of Parks’ trial, Monday, December 5. By midnight, 35,000 flyers were printed to be sent home with black schoolchildren, informing their parents of the planned boycott.
On December 5, Parks was found guilty of violating the above mentioned segregation laws. She given a suspended sentence and fined $14. Meanwhile, black participation in the boycott far exceeded media expectations. It was a huge upsurge, bringing to front pent up bitterness due to racial discrimination through the ages. Nixon and some ministers decided to take advantage of the situation, forming the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA),and they elected Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.–new to Montgomery and just 26 years old—as the MIA’s president.
The entire black community appealed and protested Parks’ sentence all the way up to the US Supreme Court. Whites often retaliated in fury and Nixon’s and Dr. King’s homes were bombed. The violence however did not sway the boycotters or their leaders and the incident went on abashed, gaining a lot of attention from both national and international press. On November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional; the boycott ended in Parks—who had lost her job and experienced harassment all year—became known as “the mother of the civil rights movement.”
Parks, along with her husband and mother, eventually moved to Detroit, where Parks’ brother resided, in order to avoid harassment and continuous public attention. She became an administrative aide in the Detroit office of Congressman John Conyers Jr. in 1965. Her entire family died of cancer between 1977 and 1979. In 1987, she co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, to serve Detroit’s youth.
Till her death, Parks was always an eminent civil rights’ activist. Her autobiography “Rosa Parks: My Story” is a lesson in black rebellion. In it she recounts the Bus story where she mentions that she was not indisposed on tired that day when she was ordered to leave her seat for a white man. She did it because she wanted to. In 1999, Parks was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor the United States bestows on a civilian. (Other recipients have included George Washington, Thomas Edison, Betty Ford and Mother Teresa.) When she died at age 92 on October 24, 2005, she became the first woman in the nation’s history to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol.