Washington -- On December
1, 1955, African-American seamstress Rosa Parks refused
to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery, Alabama,
bus and subsequently was fined and jailed.
Civil Rights heroine, Rosa Parks, shown at the
30th anniversary of the March on Washington,
August 28, 1993. (AP/WWP Photo)
In the words of President George W. Bush,
this "show of defiance was an act of personal courage
that moved millions" and an example that "helped
touch off the civil rights movement and transformed America
for the better." In 1995, when President Bill Clinton
awarded Rosa Parks the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he
declared that Parks had "ignited the single most significant
social movement in American history.”
The “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement"
died of natural causes on October 24 at her home in Detroit.
She was 92 years old.
Born Rosa Louise McCauley on February 4,
1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama, McCauley dropped out of high
school to care for her ill grandmother. In 1932, she married
barber Raymond Parks, who encouraged her to earn her diploma,
which she did in 1934, and to become active with the local
branch of the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People (NAACP).
In the summer of 1955, Parks attended an
interracial leadership conference at the Highlander Folk
School, a school founded in Monteagle, Tennessee, to train
labor organizers. The school subsequently branched into
training of desegregation advocates and numbered the Reverend
Martin Luther King Jr. among its attendees. (See also Martin
Luther King Jr.)
Parks was a 42-year-old Montgomery resident
in December 1955 when she took a middle-row seat on a Cleveland
Avenue bus. The first four rows were reserved for whites
only, with blacks limited to the rear and only permitted
in the middle if no white passenger wished to sit there.
On this occasion, Parks declined to give
up her seat. On a 1987 television documentary, she recalled
this exchange with the bus driver: "When he saw me
still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up and I
said, 'No, I'm not.' And he said, 'Well, if you don't stand
up, I'm going to have to call the police and have you arrested.'
I said, 'You may do that.'"
Parks was jailed and fined $14.
Beginning on December 5, African-Americans
led by King, the newly installed pastor of the Dexter Avenue
Baptist Church, began to boycott the Montgomery bus system.
In an event often held to mark the opening of the modern
civil rights movement, black citizens carpooled, patronized
black-owned taxis or simply walked to work, to shop and
Despite sometimes violent opposition, which
included the arrest of King and the bombings of his house
and those of other African-American leaders, the boycott
continued until December 1956. It ended only after the U.S.
Supreme Court, in a case argued by NAACP lawyers including
future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, upheld a
lower court decision declaring unconstitutional the state
and local laws segregating Montgomery buses.
The New York Times wrote that the decision,
which cited the earlier Brown v. Board of Education case,
"was thought to have placed a headstone at the grave
of Plessy v. Ferguson [the 1896 decision that upheld the
doctrine of 'separate but equal.']" (See related
After the bus boycott, the Parks family
moved to Detroit, where Rosa Parks continued to work as
a seamstress until 1965, when she accepted a position as
a staff assistant in the Detroit office of U.S. Representative
John Conyers Jr.
In 1987, Parks helped found the Rosa and
Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Improvement, a Detroit-based
In addition to the Presidential Medal of
Honor, Parks was also a recipient, in 1999, of the Congressional
Medal of Honor. Speaking at the presentation ceremony, Senator
John Breaux of Louisiana said, " Role models who put
personal bravery and self-sacrifice before self-interest
and personal gain are few and far between. We can all look
at Rosa Parks as someone who possesses these virtues.”
In 2000, the Rosa Parks Library and Museum
opened on the Montgomery street corner where Parks boarded
the local bus on December 1, 1955.
Speaking after Mrs. Parks’ death,
U.S. Representative Charles Rangel of New York said: "I
truly believe that there's a little bit of Rosa Parks in
all Americans who have the courage to say ‘enough
is enough’ and stand up for what they believe in.
She did such a small thing, but it was so courageous for
her as a humble person to do."
Rosa Parks was predeceased by her husband.
There are no survivors among her immediate family.
Additional information about the Rosa
and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Improvement and
Parks Library and Museum is available on those organizations’
Michael Jay Friedman
Washington File Staff Writer