Rosa Parks - African American Civil Rights Activist
Rosa Parks was born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama, on February 4, 1913, to Leona (née Edwards), a teacher, and James McCauley, a carpenter.
Rosa attended rural schools until the age of eleven. As a student at the Industrial School for Girls in Montgomery, she took academic and vocational courses. Rosa went on to a laboratory school set up by the Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes for secondary education, but dropped out in order to care for her grandmother and later her mother, after they became ill.
Around the turn of the 20th century, under the white-established Jim Crow laws, racial segregation was imposed in public facilities and retail stores in the South, including public transportation. Bus and train companies enforced seating policies with separate sections for blacks and whites. School bus transportation was unavailable in any form for black school children in the South and black education was always underfunded.
Although her autobiography recounts early memories of the kindness of white strangers, she could not ignore the racism of her society. When the Ku Klux Klan marched down the street in front of their house, Rosa recalls her grandfather guarding the front door with a shotgun. Repeatedly bullied by white children in her neighbourhood, she often fought back physically. She later said that “As far back as I remember, I could never think in terms of accepting physical abuse without some form of retaliation if possible.”
In 1932, Rosa married Raymond Parks, a barber from Montgomery. He was a member of the NAACP which at the time was collecting money to support the defence of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of black men falsely accused of raping two white women. Rosa took numerous jobs, ranging from domestic worker to hospital aide. At her husband's urging, she finished her high school studies in 1933, at a time when less than 7% of African Americans had a high school diploma. Despite the Jim Crow laws and discrimination by registrars, she succeeded in registering to vote on her third try.
In 1900, Montgomery passed a city ordinance to segregate bus passengers by race. The bus drivers adopted the practice of requiring black riders to move when there were no white-only seats left. The first four rows of seats on each Montgomery bus were reserved for whites. Buses had"coloured"sections for black people generally in the rear of the bus. The sections were not fixed but were determined by placement of a movable sign.
Black people could sit in the middle rows until the white section filled; if more whites needed seats, blacks were to move to seats in the rear, stand, or, if there was no room, leave the bus. Black people could not sit across the aisle in the same row as white people. If white people were already sitting in the front, black people had to board at the front to pay the fare, then disembark and reenter through the rear door.
One day in 1943, Parks boarded the bus and paid the fare. She then moved to her seat but driver James F. Blake told her to follow city rules and enter the bus again from the back door. Parks exited the vehicle and waited for the next bus, determined never to ride with Blake again.
After working all day, Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus, around 6 p.m., Thursday December 1st 1955 in downtown Montgomery. She paid her fare and sat in an empty seat in the first row of back seats reserved for blacks in the ‘coloured’ section. Near the middle of the bus, her row was directly behind the ten seats reserved for white passengers. Initially, she did not notice that the bus driver was the same man, James F. Blake, who had left her in the rain in 1943. As the bus travelled along its regular route, all of the white-only seats in the bus filled up.
Blake noted that two or three white passengers were standing, as the front of the bus had filled to capacity. He moved the ‘coloured’ section sign behind Parks and demanded that four black people give up their seats in the middle section so that the white passengers could sit.
By Parks' account, Blake said, "Y'all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats." Three of them complied. Parks said, “The driver wanted us to stand up, the four of us. We didn't move at the beginning, but he says, “Let me have these seats.” And the other three people moved, but I didn't.” The black man sitting next to her gave up his seat.
Parks moved, but toward the window seat; she did not get up to move to the redesignated colored section. Blake said, “Why don't you stand up?” Parks responded, “I don't think I should have to stand up.” When Parks refused to give up her seat, a police officer arrested her. As the officer took her away, she recalled that she asked, “Why do you push us around?” She remembered him saying, “I don't know, but the law's the law, and you're under arrest.” She later said, “I only knew that, as I was being arrested, that it was the very last time that I would ever ride in humiliation of this kind...
The next day, Parks was tried on charges of disorderly conduct and violating a local ordinance. The trial lasted 30 minutes. After being found guilty and fined $10, plus $4 in court costs, Parks appealed her conviction and formally challenged the legality of racial segregation.
On the day of Parks' trial - December 5, 1955 - the WPC distributed the 35,000 leaflets. The handbill read;
We are. therefore asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial... You can afford to stay out of school for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don't ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off the buses Monday.
It rained that day, but the black community persevered in their boycott. Some rode in carpools, while others traveled in black-operated cabs that charged the same fare as the bus, 10 cents. Most of the remainder of the 40,000 black commuters walked, some as far as 20 miles.
That evening after the success of the one-day boycott, a group of 16 to 18 people gathered at the Mt. Zion AME Zion Church to discuss boycott strategies. The group agreed that a new organization was needed Rev. Ralph Abernathy suggested the name ‘Montgomery Improvement Association’ (MIA). Its members elected as their president Martin Luther King, Jr., a relative newcomer to Montgomery, who was a young and mostly unknown minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
Parks played an important part in raising international aware- ness of the plight of African Americans and the civil rights struggle. King wrote in his 1958 book ‘Stride Toward Freedom’ that Parks' arrest was the catalyst rather than the cause of the protest: “The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices.” He wrote, “Actually, no one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, I can take it no longer.”