Parks, Rosa Louise McCauley
Rosa Louise McCauley Parks sparked a year-long boycott of buses in Montgomery, Alabama, by the city’s black community, when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus. Her arrest and trial on charges of violating SEGREGATION laws led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that segregation on the city’s buses was unconstitutional, the rise of the MARTIN LUTHER KING JR . as a CIVIL RIGHTS leader, and the emergence of the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT as a national cause.
Parks was born February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama. She attended a one-room school in Pine Level, Alabama. There, one teacher taught 50 to 60 students, who were separated into rows by age. The students were responsible for cutting wood to heat the school, and occasionally a parent would deliver a load of wood to the school by wagon. Whereas the black community had to heat and even build its own schools, a new brick school for white children was constructed near Parks’s home, paid for with public funds, including taxes paid by both blacks and whites, and heated at public expense. Black children’s families helped them to plow and plant in the spring, and to harvest in the fall, so the children attended school only five months during the year; white children attended school for nine months.
Because Pine Level offered no schooling to black children beyond the sixth grade, Parks’s mother sent her to Montgomery to live with relatives and to continue her education. But she was forced to drop out of high school during her junior year to care for her dying grandmother and, later, her ailing mother. She finally earned her high-school diploma in 1933 at the age of 20, a year after she had married Raymond Parks.
Her husband was the first activist whom Parks had met. He was a long-time member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP ). When he met Parks, he was working to raise money for the legal defense of nine young black men, known as the Scottsboro Boys, who had been arrested for raping a white woman. Although the charges were unsubstantiated, all of the men were found guilty and all but one were scheduled to die in the electric chair in 1931. The NAACP and other national organizations were able to file an appeal on the men’s behalf with the U.S. Supreme Court, which ordered a new trial. All of the defendants were eventually exonerated.
After the Scottsboro defendants were saved from execution, Parks and her husband became involved in voter registration. Parks first attempted to register to vote in 1943. Like most other black citizens, she was forced to take a literacy test. Although she believed that she had passed the test, she was denied twice. Then, before she could complete her registration, she had to pay an accumulated POLL TAX of $1.50 per year. Blacks and whites were subject to the poll tax. However, whites were allowed to register
upon turning 21 and could simply pay the tax once per year from then on. On the other hand, blacks might not be able to register until they were much older, and they were then forced to pay the tax retroactively to the age of 21. Parks’s tax totaled $16.50, a considerable amount of money at that time.
While Parks was making her second attempt to register to vote in 1943, she was put off of a Montgomery city bus for the first time. Blacks had to follow certain rules when riding the bus, including stepping in the front door to pay their fare, then stepping off and going around to the back door to board the bus. They were required to sit at the back of the bus, even when the front section that was reserved for whites was empty. On this occasion, Parks boarded the bus in the front and made her way through the bus to the back. When the driver insisted that she leave the bus and re-enter through the back door, she refused. The driver then grabbed her coat sleeve and told her to get off his bus.
By that time, Parks was a member of the NAACP, one of only two women who were active in the local organization. At the 1943 meeting of the Montgomery branch, she was elected secretary. The Montgomery NAACP had begun to consider filing a lawsuit against the city over bus segregation, but it wanted a PLAINTIFF who had a strong case.
On the evening of December 1, 1955, Parks left work and boarded the bus home. After she had paid her fare, she realized that the bus driver was the same one who had put her off of his bus 12 years earlier and whom she had since gone out of her way to avoid. Parks took a vacant seat in the front of the black section of the bus, near three other black passengers. As the bus began to fill up, a white man was left standing, and the bus driver demanded that Parks and the other blacks relinquish their seats. The other three people moved back, but Parks refused. The bus driver called the police, who arrested Parks and took her to the city jail. She was soon released on bail, and a trial date was set for the following week. Later that evening, Parks agreed to become the plaintiff whom the NAACP had been seeking to test the constitutionality of segregation on the buses.
That evening, leaders of the Montgomery Women’s Political Caucus began calling for a bus boycott by the black community for December 5, to coincide with Parks’s hearing.
The 18 black-owned cab companies in the city agreed to stop at all of the bus stops on Monday and to charge only ten cents, the same as the bus fare.
When Monday came, the Montgomery city buses were nearly empty of black riders, marking the black community’s first united protest against segregation. At her court hearing that day, Parks pleaded not guilty. The court ruled that she had violated the state segregation laws, and she was fined and given a SUSPENDED SENTENCE and fined.
Earlier that day, several ministers in the city, including the Reverend RALPH D. ABERNATHY , decided to form a new organization, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), to lead the boycott. The ministers felt that the NAACP did not have a large enough membership in Alabama to assume a leadership role, and they wanted to have a local group at the fore front so that no one could claim that outside agitators were running the demonstration. The group elected King as its president. King was then pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The group thought that he was the best candidate because he was so new to the city and to civil rights work that he had not yet made any strong friends or strong enemies.
The bus boycott lasted more than a year. Many black people lost their jobs because of their support of the boycott. Parks’s husband resigned from his job as a barber at the Maxwell Field Air Force Base when the white shop owner ordered that there was to be no discussion of Parks or the protest in his shop. The city police tried to disrupt the protest by harassing groups of blacks who were waiting at city bus stops for the black-owned cabs and by threatening to arrest cabdrivers if they did not charge their regular fare.
Once the police actually began arresting the cabdrivers, the community developed a sophisticated, private transportation system consisting of 20 cars and 14 station wagons. Thirty-two pickup and transfer sites were established, and service was scheduled from 5:30 A.M. to 12:30 A.M. Through this system, several people were transported to and from work every day. Although white supporters of the boycott received threatening letters and telephone calls, many white women who were unwilling to go without household help transported their black housekeepers and cooks every day. Blacks were also subjected to violence. King’s home and those of other boycott leaders were bombed. Drivers of the black car-pool were arrested for minor traffic violations, and insurance on the cars in the pool was canceled until King located a black insurance agent in Atlanta who arranged for Lloyd’s of London to write a policy for some of the cars.
While the boycott continued, the fight over segregation began in the courts. In February 1956, after the appeal of Parks’s conviction was dismissed on a technicality, lawyers filed suit in U.S. district court on behalf of five women, including Parks, who had been mistreated on the buses. The suit claimed that bus segregation was unconstitutional.
At the same time, white lawyers discovered an old state law that prohibited boycotts, and a GRAND JURY issued 89 indictments against King, other ministers and leaders of the MIA, and other citizens, including Parks. King was the first to be tried. He was found guilty and was sentenced to pay a $500 fine or to serve a year of hard labor. His conviction was successfully appealed, however, and no one else was brought to trial in connection with those boycotts.
In June 1956 a three-judge panel of a U.S. district court in Alabama ruled that Montgomery’s bus segregation was unconstitutional (Browder v. Gayle, 142 F. Supp. 707 [M.D. Ala. 1956]). The city appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. On November 13, the high court upheld the district court (352 U.S. 903, 77 S. Ct. 145, 1 L. Ed. 2d 114). The boycotters decided to continue their demonstration until the order was official. On December 20, the Court’s written decision arrived. On the following day, the black community ended the bus boycott.
In the beginning, INTEGRATION of the buses did not go smoothly. Snipers fired at buses, and the city imposed curfews that prevented buses from operating after 5:00 P.M., which kept people who worked until 5:00 from riding the buses home.
Because of the boycott, Parks and her husband received hate mail and threatening telephone calls. In 1957 they decided to move to Detroit, where Parks’s younger brother, Sylvester, lived. Parks was spending a great deal of time traveling around the country speaking about the bus boycott and the civil rights movement. She often attended meetings of a new organization formed by King and other ministers, the SOUTHERN CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE . She also attended the 1963 March on Washington that was organized to push for civil rights legislation. By that time, black people all over the South were protesting segregation and were organizing boycotts.
In 1964 President LYNDON B. JOHNSON signed the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT , 42 U.S.C.A. § 1971, 1975a to 1975d, 2000a to 2000h-6, guaranteeing blacks the right to vote and to use public accommodations. But segregation was still pervasive in the South. In March 1965, King called for a mass march in Alabama, from Selma to Montgomery, to protest the treatment of civil rights demonstrators in Selma. Parks was invited to join the march for the final eight miles to the capital in Montgomery.
In 1965 Parks went to work for U.S. Representative John Conyers, whom she had supported in his campaign for the congressional seat from the First District in Michigan. Parks remained as Conyers’s receptionist and office assistant until her retirement in 1988.
For a long time, Parks wanted to start an organization to help young people. In 1987 she founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, to offer classes Page 411 | Top of Articlein communications skills, health, economics, and political awareness.
Time magazine named Parks one of the 100 most influential people of the twentieth century, as a heroine and an icon. In 1996 President BILL CLINTON awarded Parks the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. In 1999 Congress awarded her the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, the highest award conferred by the U.S. government. “It is not an exaggeration to say that American history has moved through and with Rosa Parks. ... This modest woman transformed an act designed to perpetuate the harsh rule of Jim Crow into the spark that ignited a determined and righteous crusade,” said Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), one of the sponsors of the award.
Despite her fame and well-regard, her later years were not easy. In 1994 she was mugged by a 28-year-old man for $53 in her own home in Detroit. By 2002 Parks was suffering from dementia and faced some financial difficulties. Parks could not pay her rent and relied on a local church to cover the costs for a time.
Rosa Parks died at home at 92 on October 24, 2005. As her husband died in 1977 and the marriage was childless, she had no survivors in her immediate family. Within days, the U.S. Senate and HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES passed a resolution to honor Parks by allowing her the honor of being the 31st person to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. Parks’ honor represented some firsts: the first woman, the first American non-U.S. government official, and the second non-government official (after Frenchman Pierre L’Enfant) to be accorded this honor. She was the second African American to lie in honor, the first having been Jacob Chestnut, a U.S. Capitol Police officer killed a shooting at the Capitol in 1998.
The Rosa Parks Library and Museum on the campus of Troy University in Montgomery was dedicated to her on December 1, 2000. It is located on the corner where Parks boarded the famed bus.
Celsi, Teresa. 1991. Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press.
Parks, Rosa, with Gregory J. Reed. 1994. Quiet Strength: The Faith, the Hope, and the Heart of a Woman Who Changed a Nation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
Parks, Rosa, with Jim Haskins. 1992. Rosa Parks: My Story New York: Dial.
Robinson, Jo Ann Gibson. 1987. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It. Knoxville, Tenn.: Univ. of Tennessee Press.
“Time 100: Heroes and Icons—Rosa Parks.” 1999. Available online at www.time.com/time/time100/heroes/profile/parks01.html (accessed January 26, 2004).