Rosa Parks was a dear, dear friend of mine. This is my account of her story.
-Dr. Ruth Love, Professor, UC Berkeley
Rosa Louise Parks changed the course of history! In her quiet, determined and courageous manner - she sat so that others could stand.
Life in the South
Segregation was commonplace in southern states. Its sting was a daily reminder that “separate, but equal” was never a reality. Imagine for a moment that stores, restaurants, restrooms, buses and trains required by law that black people sit separately, eat separately, enter in back doors, and drink water from fountains labeled “Colored”.
That was the social environment when Rosa McCauley was born on February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama. Her father was a carpenter and traveled around the area building houses. Her mother worked cleaning homes. James and Leona McCauley wanted the best for their children, but times were very difficult. There was not much money, and segregation was everywhere. It limited what they were able to do to earn a living. So little Rosa quickly learned about racial discrimination.
After her parents separated, Rosa’s mother sent her to live with her grandparents, Rosa and Sylvester Edwards, on their farm in Pine Level, Alabama. Both of Rosa’s grandparents were former slaves and strong advocates for racial equality. They were very kind to Rosa, but warned her about segregation. In one experience, Rosa recalled her grandfather standing in the front door of their house with a shotgun, while Ku Klux Klan members marched down the street. Often, she was frightened by what she saw; black people being pushed and beaten or segregated in dismal houses and workplaces.
Education, in Spite of…
The small city of Pine Level had a new school building and bus transportation for white students, while African American students walked to their one-room schoolhouse. The school had few school supplies and old desks. However, the teacher was very loving and wanted all of the students to study and become educated. At age 11, Rosa’s mother sent her to the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls in Montgomery, Alabama. It was a Quaker school with white teachers, but the teachers treated all the girls equally. It was one of the first times Rosa experienced love, trust, and respect between races. She liked the new school very much; it had many more books and interesting classrooms. Rosa was a good student, but she had to drop out in the 11th grade to care for her sick grandmother. She got a job in a shirt factory in Montgomery and continued to look after her grandmother.
Served her Community
In 1932, Rosa met Raymond Parks, a barber who was active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). At that time, the NAACP was considered a radical group, because it fought for equal rights. Rosa agreed with these views and she and Parks, as he was called, would have heated discussions about race and inequality. Parks was immediately captured by Rosa’s beauty and intelligence. But he had to fight for her. In the end, he won her over, and they were married. After their marriage, Rosa was finally able to achieve her goal of finishing high school, with the support of her new husband. She became involved in civil rights and served as secretary and youth counselor to the NAACP under president, E.D. Nixon until 1957. Rosa Parks was convinced that making life better meant working in her community.
Ms. Parks took meticulous care in her role as secretary for the NAACP. She was not merely a note-taker. She took a great interest in many of the civil rights cases that crossed her desk, and became particularly concerned with egregious rape cases. One such case was that of a black woman from Rosa’s father’s hometown, Abbeville, Alabama. The woman had been “kidnapped on her way home from church, forced into a car at gunpoint, stripped naked, and gang-raped by six white men.” Rosa monitored the case closely, and when the county jury failed to indict the men, she pushed the NAACP to the Alabama governor to convene a special jury. However, her efforts were for naught: the men were never found guilty. Nevertheless, Rosa stayed strongly focused on upholding the rights of her fellow African Americans and continued to fight for justice.
In a second case, Rosa took up the cause of Jeremiah Reeves, an eighteen-year-old grocery delivery boy who was framed for rape. One of his customers, a white woman, had invited him in to her home to seduce him. A nosy neighbor peered into the woman’s bedroom window and caught the two undressing. Embarrassed, Reeves’ customer cried rape, causing Reeves to spend years on death row, and ultimately be executed in the electric chair. While Reeves was in prison, the Montgomery branch of the NAACP took up his case. Rosa, however, corresponded with him personally. She felt for the young boy, and desperately wanted to keep his spirits high. He was a poet, and Rosa took it upon herself to get his poetry published in the Birmingham World.
To put so much effort and care into issues that ultimately resulted in such tragic losses might have caused many individuals to lose hope. Not Rosa Parks. Instead of wavering, Rosa turned her energy towards young people. She became advisor to the informal NAACP Youth Group, which evolved into the organization’s official Youth Council. Historian, Douglas Brinkley, accounts, “Never did Parks seem happier or more at ease than when reading passages from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to a gaggle of wide-eyed ten-year-olds or organizing spelling bees at the local church for ambitious high schoolers. She taught them all how to maintain a sense of dignity in a Jim Crow town.” NAACP President Nixon remembered, “Kids just loved Mrs. Parks to death. They had a special bond, an understanding that was very rare indeed, full of hugs and all that.”
In addition to her full-time position with the NAACP, Rosa worked part-time as a seamstress to make ends meet. This work paled in comparison to her role with the organization, of course, but nevertheless, Rosa altered men’s custom-fit suits and hand-sewed women’s dresses with great care and deft precision.
Refused to Move to the Back Seats
In the 1940s, segregation laws on buses were inconsistent at best. Bus driver’s enforced them at random and threatened unresponsive passengers with the pistols they carried. These threats were always directed at African American riders, who were tormented and humiliated on buses on a regular basis. Rosa’s experience was not exceptional, but her reaction was.
On a rainy night in 1943, Rosa Parks boarded a bus to go home. She climbed up the front steps. She knew she was expected to get on the back of the bus, but the back section was so full that she couldn’t fit. The bus driver told her she had to sit in the back. She protested, but he insisted. Begrudgingly, she complied, and started to make her way to the back of the bus. The bus driver stopped her: she had to get off the bus and walk around to the back doors. “I told him I was already on the bus and didn’t see the need of getting off and getting back on when people were standing in the stepwell, and how was I going to squeeze in anyway?” Ms. Parks explained years later, “So he told me if I couldn’t go through the back door that I would have to get off the bus – ‘my bus,’ he called it. I stood where I was.” Historian Brinkley, tells the story of what happened next:
When [the bus driver] began tugging on Parks’s coat sleeve to push her physically off the bus, she did not struggle. She held her head high and warned him not to strike her; she would exit of her own accord. Startled, all [the bus driver] could manage in reply was an enraged ‘Get off my bus,’ to which Parks responded by intentionally dropping her handbag and then plopping down on a whites-only seat to retrieve it on her way out, further infuriating the driver.
Rosa preferred to walk home in the rain than suffer injustice from a bigoted bus driver.
The bus driver Rosa encountered on that rainy night in 1943 was named James F. Blake. It was not the first time Rosa would meet this man. Their second encounter was on December 1, 1955, a day that marked the beginning of a new chapter in the American Civil Rights Movement; a day that made Rosa Parks famous. Ms. Parks wasn’t seeking fame, however. “All I wanted was my dignity,” she later said, “I just wanted to go home like everyone else.”
On the evening of December 1, 1955 as she was returning home from work as a seamstress, Rosa boarded the bus. She paid her fare, ten cents, and sat in the first seat she saw. Immediately, the bus driver approached and ordered her to move to the back. To her horror and dismay, Rosa recognized James F. Blake, a man she had been strictly avoiding for the last twelve years. Despite her fear, Rosa remained seated. Blake was more than a little agitated and began screaming at and threatening her. Finally, he told her she would be arrested for breaking the law. He reminded her that the law mandated that colored people sat in the back of the bus; that, in fact, black people had to get on the bus, pay their fare, then get off of the bus and go to the back. Blake warned Rosa to give her seat to a white passenger. Rosa Parks still refused. She had had enough discrimination. However, as a bus driver, Blake had the authority of a police officer. He proceeded to handcuff Ms. Parks and take her to jail.
African Americans in Montgomery were alarmed. They knew and respected Ms. Parks and would not tolerate her being abused in any way. After being taken to jail in handcuffs, Rosa Parks was fingerprinted and taken to a cell. However, NAACP President E.D. Nixon paid her bail and she was released. Word of her arrest spread like wild flowers, sparking a huge reaction in the black community. A meeting was called that evening and young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was asked to lead the group in a bus boycott; they had had enough segregation and discrimination.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was organized with cars providing transportation for long distances, but most people walked to work, regardless of distance. Most black people did not own cars, but that did not stop them; the city was filled with men and women walking with pride to and from work. As one elderly man said, “These feet may be tired, but my soul is rested.” The bus boycott lasted for 381 days. Ministers from throughout the South joined in the effort to end bus segregation, and formed The Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC). The leaders of the boycott decided to file a lawsuit and everyone continued to walk to work.
Risks, Sacrifices, and Courage
Despite the unity and strength of the black community in Montgomery, Rosa felt ashamed. The home she lived in with her husband and mother had to be boarded up for safety. White Southerners were after her like there was no tomorrow. She received death threats. She felt the fear and danger her family faced was entirely her fault, and she felt personally responsible for the many miles her neighbors marched to and from work. Rosa was willful and brave, but she was also deeply compassionate.
However, no one blamed Rosa for her act of civil disobedience. In fact, during the rally that followed Rosa’s trial, Dr. King praised Ms. Parks for her extraordinary character and courage:
Since [the arrest] had to happen, I’m happy it happened to a person like Rosa Parks, for nobody can doubt the boundless outreach of her integrity. Nobody can doubt the height of her character, nobody can doubt the depth of her Christian commitment…. But there comes a time that people get tired. We are here this evening to say to those who have mistreated us so long that we are tired – tired of being segregated and humiliated; tired of being kicked about by the brutal feet of oppression…. We have no alternative but to protest…. For many years we have shown amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from the patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.
The crowd broke out in a standing ovation. People chanted “Rosa! Rosa!” and cried “Thank you, sister!” Of that night, Dr. King later recalled, “She was the heroine. They saw in her courageous person the symbol of their hopes and aspirations.”
It is true that some African Americans risked their jobs and their lives. Many were fired for boycotting, but still the boycott continued. Their struggle was trying, but they all recognized that their cause was greater than any individual hardship. Families shared food, clothes and housing with each other and kept their spirits high. Rosa’s action provided the platform for Dr. King to preach non-violence, regardless of the circumstances. Because of her quiet strength, he was able to inspire and encourage his listeners. He promised a better day was coming. Dr. King also admonished the marchers and walkers to refrain from bitterness. Often, he spoke of compassion and love. People felt close to each other and kept walking to achieve their goal of desegregation.
The lawsuit, filed by several leaders of the bus boycott, went all the way to the Supreme Court. Still, the boycott continued. Often individuals and groups sang “We Shall Overcome”, “Aint Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around”, and other freedom songs. Even when they were taunted and called names, they kept walking. The slogan, “Rosa sat so we could walk”, took on new meaning. The boycott lasted a long time, but the challenges were worth the sacrifices.
Victory at Last
Finally, on December 20, 1956 the Supreme Court issued a ruling, declaring that the Alabama and Montgomery laws requiring segregation on buses were unconstitutional. The decision was one of the best Christmas gifts for the local African American community and for black people nationwide. There were joyous celebrations. The protesters realized the importance of their victory and understood that many other vestiges of segregation and discrimination had to be addressed. For the moment, however, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. Dr. King and other leaders met and began to plan their strategy of non-violence demonstrations. Rosa Parks was deeply moved by the court decision and pondered how her act of defiance had led to the boycott and this major decision. I remember her saying, “Justice is often slow, but it will come.” She felt no bitterness toward anyone. She said, “Hate will destroy the hater.”
“I was tired of discrimination.”
Years later, Rosa Parks discussed her feelings about the bus incident with me. She recalled, “I was tired of discrimination. I was tired of segregation. Yes, I was afraid because I knew he could hit me or kill me and the police would do nothing. At the jail, I was really frightened. But, even though I was fearful, I was even more determined to accept whatever I had to face.”
In his book Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King also remarked upon that fateful day in December of 1955. His words are a tribute that still ring loud and true. Of her refusal to move to the back of the bus, he wrote:
It was an individual expression of a timeless longing for human dignity and freedom. She wasn’t “planted” there by the NAACP, or any other organization; she was planted there by her personal sense of dignity and self-respect. She was anchored to that seat by the accumulated indignities of days gone and the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn. She was a victim of both the forces of history and the forces of destiny. She had been tracked down by the Zeitgeist – the spirit of the time.
Left the South: Committed to Equality
In 1957, after the boycott ended, Rosa and Raymond Parks moved to Detroit, Michigan. It was a bittersweet transition from Montgomery to Detroit. Rosa had become so ostracized by the broader Montgomery community that she couldn’t find work. She was forced to relocate. However, her brother, Sylvester lived in Detroit, and Rosa absolutely loved being near him and his family, and taking care of her nieces and nephews. Moving north also opened up a whole new stream of opportunities for Ms. Parks, from lecturing at colleges and universities across the U.S. to traveling as far away as Japan and working with global peace activists, and working for Congressman John Conyers. But, as E.D. Nixon confessed, “I never realized how much I would miss Rosa…. Her leaving was a low, low moment for us all.” Nevertheless, both Rosa up north, and the Civil Rights leaders down south continued to fight on. They may have been separated by distance, but they remained as united as ever in their commitment to social justice.
Rosa became a vital part of Congressman Conyers’ office. He is now the second most senior member in the House of Representatives, and he remembers Rosa with deep affection and admiration, “Rosa Parks was so famous that people would come by my office to meet with her, not me.” She was indeed a source of popularity, but she proved to be a source of controversy as well: “the notion held in 1965 by many whites in Detroit – including the press and the police – [was] that Rosa Parks was an outside agitator. ‘She was considered a dangerous person.’ Conyers chuckled in retrospect. ‘People called her a troublemaker.’” The reality, however, was quite the contrary, Conyers explained, “You could never get her to say a bad word about anybody – not even an obvious fool. She just couldn’t be negative. The discongruity was this: She had a heavy progressive streak about her that was uncharacteristic for a neat, religious, demure, churchgoing lady.”
Years later, on the day of Rosa Parks mournful death in October of 2005, Conyers spoke again of her brilliant and enigmatic character:
I can’t help but marvel at the fact that Rosa Parks essentially had a saint-like quality. And I use that term advisedly, because she never raised her voice. She was not an emotional person in terms of expressing anger or rage or vindictiveness. But she was resolute. And this was an unusual set of circumstances for a person who, as the Movement went on and the successes built up, she became more and more recognized as the person who had, without probably intending to, [initiated] a resurrection of the Civil Rights Movement.
Prior to her death, and one year before retiring from Congressman Conyers’ office, Rosa, in partnership with her dear friend Elaine Steele, founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development. It is still highly active today, and its goal is to motivate and empower youth to reach their highest potential. During the summers, the Institute sponsors tours of civil rights monuments, which gives students across the United States an opportunity to learn about the history and the struggles for equal rights. In her own way, Ms. Parks remained committed to justice and equality.
Rosa, with the help and devotion of her attorney and dear friend, Gregory J. Reed, authored three written works in her lifetime, all meant to educate and inspire young people. Rosa herself was always “motivated and inspired by young people and children,” she once wrote. “My eyes light up whenever children come around.” In the first work, My Story, Rosa tells the tale of her life in the South and sheds light on her perspective of the inception and trajectory of the Civil Rights Movement. This recounting of her life and legacy is a gift for future generations. The second book, Quiet Strength: The Faith, the Hope, and the Heart of a Woman Who Changed a Nation, is a small compilation of inspirational stories, prayers, and anecdotes. Her final work, Dear Mrs. Parks: A Dialogue with Today’s Youth, was a response to the massive quantity of letters she received from children each year. In it, she replies earnestly, with great wisdom, compassion, and humor, to a selection of questions and letters written by children from across the country.
Mother of the Movement
In her book, Quiet Strength, published in 1994, Ms. Parks reflects:
Four decades later I am still uncomfortable with the credit given to me for starting the bus boycott. Many people do not know the whole truth; I would like them to know I was not the only person involved. I was just one of many who fought for freedom. And many others around me began to want to fight for their rights as well. At the time, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was emerging on the scene. He once said, “If you will protest courageously and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in the future generations, the historians will have to pause and say: there lived a great people – a black people – who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.” It was these words that guided many of us as we faced the trials and tribulations of fighting for our rights.
During her life, Rosa Parks received hundreds of awards, certificates and honors. In 1996, at the White House, President Bill Clinton presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor bestowed upon an American citizen. He referred to her as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.” She traveled and made speeches at numerous events. Often, when this remarkable, but quiet lady entered a room, there was a hush that would come over the audience. Sometimes, all she had to do was raise her arms. People were satisfied just to see her. Rosa Parks continued to work and travel as long as she could.
In 1990, just four months after his release from prison, South African leader, Nelson Mandela, paid a visit to the United States. “He is my symbol of hope,” Rosa once proclaimed, “He is our future.” To her delight, Ms. Parks was invited to meet this great man, and joined the small crowd at the airport in anticipation of his arrival. She was sure he wouldn’t know who she was. However, as Mandela slowly made his way down the steps towards his receiving line, he suddenly froze, “staring openmouthed in wonder. Tears filled his eyes as he walked up to a small old woman with her hair in two silver braids crossed atop her head. In a low, melodious tone, Nelson Mandela began to chant, ‘Ro-sa Parks. Ro-sa Parks. Ro-sa Parks,’ until his voice crescendoed into a rapturous shout: ‘Ro-sa Parks!’” The two embraced, intimately sharing the weight and meaning of their lives – which were so distant, yet inseparably linked by the magnitude of their dreams.
On October 25, 2005, Rosa Parks died as quietly as she lived. The nation mourned her passing and funerals and memorials were held in cities across the nation. Her wish was to be buried in Montgomery, Alabama, and so she was.
Douglas Brinkley, Rosa Parks (New York: Lipper/Viking, 2000) 70.
The Rosa Parks Story, Dir. Julie Dash, Xenon Pictures, 2002.
Rosa Parks and Gregory J. Reed, Quiet Strength (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994) 27.