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Civil Rights Catalyst Rosa Parks Dead at 92

Refusal to give up bus seat ignited movement of 1950s and 1960s

Posted: October 26, 2005


Civil Rights heroine, Rosa Parks, shown at the 30th anniversary of the March on Washington, August 28, 1993. (AP/WWP Photo)

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.

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 to school.

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 article.)

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 youth organization.

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 the Rosa Parks Library and Museum is available on those organizations’ Web sites.

Michael Jay Friedman
Washington File Staff Writer

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