Rosa McCauley was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, on 4th February, 1913. When Rosa was a child her mother, Leona McCauley, separated from her husband and moved to Montgomery. McCauley was a school teacher and encouraged her daughter to be active in the struggle for civil rights.
In 1932 Rosa married a barber, Raymond Parks. Both were members of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and Rosa served as the secretary of the Montgomery chapter.
During this period she became close friends with Philip Randolph, Edgar Nixon and Ella Baker. These activists worked within a range of different organizations. This included the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Established in 1942, by a group of students in Chicago, members were mainly pacifists who had been deeply influenced by Henry David Thoreau and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and the nonviolent civil disobedience campaign that he used successfully against British rule in India. The students became convinced that the same methods could be employed by blacks to obtain civil rights in America.
In early 1947, CORE announced plans to send eight white and eight black men into the Deep South to test the Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in interstate travel unconstitutional. organized by George Houser and Bayard Rustin, the Journey of Reconciliation was to be a two week pilgrimage through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky.
The Journey of Reconciliation began on 9th April, 1947. The team included George Houser, Bayard Rustin, James Peck, Igal Roodenko, Nathan Wright, Conrad Lynn, Wallace Nelson, Andrew Johnson, Eugene Stanley, Dennis Banks, William Worthy, Louis Adams, Joseph Felmet, Worth Randle and Homer Jack.
Members of the Journey of Reconciliation team were arrested several times. In North Carolina, two of the African Americans, Bayard Rustin and Andrew Johnson, were found guilty of violating the state's Jim Crow bus statute and were sentenced to thirty days on a chain gang. However, Judge Henry Whitfield made it clear he found that behaviour of the white men even more objectionable. He told Igal Roodenko and Joseph Felmet: "It's about time you Jews from New York learned that you can't come down her bringing your niggers with you to upset the customs of the South. Just to teach you a lesson, I gave your black boys thirty days, and I give you ninety."
In Montgomery, like most towns in the Deep South, buses were segregated. Rosa Parks and other civil rights activists considered using these tactics in Montgomery. However, under pressure from the NAACP, this never took place. Thurgood Marshall, head of the NAACP's legal department, was strongly against these tactics and warned that a "disobedience movement on the part of Negroes and their white allies, if employed in the South, would result in wholesale slaughter with no good achieved."
In early 1955, Claudette Colvin, a 15 year old black girl was dragged off a bus in Montgomery and arrested for not giving up her seat to a white person. The NAACP now agreed to take up the Colvin incident as a test case. It believed that this would result in a similar outcome to the 1954 Supreme Court decision on segregation in education. However, the NAACP decided to drop the idea when they discovered that Colvin was pregnant. They knew that the authorities in Montgomery would use this against them in the propaganda war that would inevitably take place during this legal battle.
On 1st December, 1955, Rosa Parks, left Montgomery Fair, the department store where she worked, and got on the same bus as she did every night. As always she sat in the "black section" at the back of the bus. However, when the bus became full, the driver instructed Rosa to give up her seat to a white person. This had happened to Rosa several times before. In fact, the same bus driver had forced her off the bus in 1943 for committing the same offence. Once again she refused and was arrested by the police. She was found guilty of violating the segregation law and fined.
It was only at this stage, after consulting friends and family, that she decided to approach the NAACP and volunteer to become a test case. This was a brave decision as she knew it would result in persecution by the white authorities. For example, Parks was immediately sacked from her tailoring job with Montgomery Fair.
Martin Luther King, a pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, agreed to help organize protests against bus segregation. It was decided that from 5th December, black people in Montgomery would refuse to use the buses until passengers were completely integrated. King was arrested and his house was fire-bombed. Edgar Nixon suffered the same fate. Others involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott also had to endure harassment and intimidation, but the protest continued.
For thirteen months the 17,000 black people in Montgomery walked to work or obtained lifts from the small car-owning black population of the city. Eventually, the loss of revenue and a decision by the Supreme Court forced the Montgomery Bus Company to accept integration, and the boycott came to an end on 20th December, 1956. After the success of this campaign, Parks became known as the "mother of the Civil Rights Movement".
Rosa and her family were now targets for white racists and in 1957 the family decided to move to Detroit. Later she became a special assistant to Democratic Congressman, John Conyers.
Rosa remained active in the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and in 1987 she founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, which aimed to help the young and educate them about civil rights. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) also established an annual Rosa Parks Freedom Award. Her autobiography, Rosa Parks: My Story, was published in 1992.
Rosa Parks died on 24th October, 2005.