Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks

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. "Years later she remembered how racism permeated the details of everyday life. Black women would be served last if they tried to buy new shoes; when they tried a hat on in a store the saleswoman would put a bag inside it." (1)

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. (2)

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. (3)

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. CORE gave out the following instructions taking the hourney: "If you are a Negro, sit in a front seat. If you are white, sit in a rear seat. If the driver asks you to move, tell him calmly and courteously: 'As an interstate passenger I have a right to sit anywhere in this bus. This is the law as laid down by the United States Supreme Court'. If the driver summons the police and repeats his order in their presence, tell him exactly what you said when he first asked you to move. If the police asks you to 'come along,' without putting you under arrest, tell them you will not go until you are put under arrest. If the police put you under arrest, go with them peacefully. At the police station, phone the nearest headquarters of the NAACP, or one of your lawyers. They will assist you." (4)

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. Rustin wrote: "At times freedom will demand that its followers go into situations where even death is to be faced. Resistance on the buses would, for example, mean humiliation, mistreatment by police, arrest, and some physical violence inflicted on the participants. But if anyone at this date in history believes that the 'white problem,' which is one of privilege, can be settled without some violence, he is mistaken and fails to realize the ends to which men can be driven to hold on to what they consider their privileges. This is why Negroes and whites who participate in direct action must pledge themselves to non-violence in word and deed. For in this way alone can the inevitable violence be reduced to a minimum." (5)

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 CORE 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.

Rosa Parks having her fingerprints takenafter her arrest on 1st December, 1955.
Rosa Parks having her fingerprints taken after her arrest on 1st December, 1955.

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.

Primary Sources

(1) Rosa Parks, interviewed by Howell Raines for the book My Soul is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered (1977)

I had left my work at the men's alteration shop, a tailor shop in the Montgomery Fair department store, and as I left work, I crossed the street to a drugstore to pick up a few items instead of trying to go directly to the bus stop. And when I had finished this, I came across the street and looked for a Cleveland Avenue bus that apparently had some seats on it. At that time it was a little hard to get a seat on the bus. But when I did get to the entrance of the bus, I got in line with a number of other people who were getting on the same bus.

As I got up on the bus and walked to the seat I saw there was only one vacancy that was just back of where it was considered the white section. So this was the seat that I took, next to the aisle, and a man was sitting next to me. Across the aisle there were two women, and there were a few seats at this point in the very front of the bus that was called the white section. I went on to one stop and I didn't particularly notice who was getting on the bus, didn't particularly notice the other people getting on. And on the third stop there were some people getting on, and at this point all of the front seats were taken. Now in the beginning, at the very first stop I had got on the bus, the back of the bus was filled up with people standing in the aisle and I don't know why this one vacancy that I took was left, because there were quite a few people already standing toward the back of the bus. The third stop is when all the front seats were taken, and this one man was standing and when the driver looked around and saw he was standing, he asked the four of us, the man in the seat with me and the two women across the aisle, to let him have those front seats.

At his first request, didn't any of us move. Then he spoke again and said, "You'd better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats." At this point, of course, the passenger who would have taken the seat hadn't said anything. In fact, he never did speak to my knowledge. When the three people, the man who was in the seat with me and the two women, stood up and moved into the aisle, I remained where I was. When the driver saw that I was still sitting there, he asked if I was going to stand up. I told him, no, I wasn't. He said, "Well, if you don't stand up, I'm going to have you arrested." I told him to go on and have me arrested.

He got off the bus and came back shortly. A few minutes later, two policemen got on the bus, and they approached me and asked if the driver had asked me to stand up, and I said yes, and they wanted to know why I didn't. I told them I didn't think I should have to stand up.... They placed me under arrest then and had me to get in the police car, and I was taken to jail.

(2) Martin Luther King, speech, Holt Street Baptist Church (5th December, 1955)

We are here this evening for serious business. We are here in a general sense because first and foremost we are American citizens, and we are determined to apply our citizenship to the fullness of its means. We are here because of our love for democracy, because of our deep-seated belief that democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest, form of government on earth. But we are here in a specific sense, because of the bus situation in Montgomery. We are here because we are determined to get the situation corrected.

This situation is not at all new. The problem has existed over endless years. For many years now Negroes in Montgomery and so many other areas have been inflicted with the paralysis of crippling fear on buses in our community. On so many occasions, Negroes have been intimidated and humiliated and oppressed because of the sheer fact that they were Negroes. I don't have time this evening to go into the history of these numerous cases.

But at least one stands before us now with glaring dimensions. Just the other day, just last Thursday to be exact, one of the finest citizens in Montgomery - not one of the finest Negro citizens but one of the finest citizens in Montgomery - was taken from a bus and carried to jail and arrested because she refused to get up to give her seat to a white person... Mrs. Rosa Parks is a fine person. And since it had to happen I'm happy it happened to a person like Mrs. 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 and devotion to the teachings of Jesus.

And just because she refused to get up, she was arrested. You know my friends there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. There comes a time my friends when people get tired of being flung across the abyss of humiliation where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life's July and left standing amidst the piercing chill of an Alpine November.

(3) Sheila Rowbotham, The Guardian (26th October, 2005)

According to legend, on December 1 1955, a weary black woman in Montgomery, Alabama, sat in the "for whites only" front section of a bus and started the civil rights movement. Rosa Lee Parks, who has died aged 92, never stopped explaining that this was not really what happened. Nonetheless she continued to be presented as a simple soul with tired feet - a condescending misinterpretation of a woman who was an experienced and respected campaigner for civil rights.

When Parks was born in Tuskegee, the state of Alabama was rigidly segregated. But her mother, a believer in equality and justice, told the young Rosa about her grandfather, Sylvester Edwards, who had defied racism, and encouraged her to do the same. Determined that her daughter would be well educated, she also sent Rosa to Miss White's school for girls. In this era, educated black girls could work either as clerks or seamstresses and Rosa Parks became skilled in the latter. Years later she remembered how racism permeated the details of everyday life. Black women would be served last if they tried to buy new shoes; when they tried a hat on in a store the saleswoman would put a bag inside it.

In the early 1940s, Rosa Parks and her husband Raymond, a barber, whom she had married in 1932, became involved in the Montgomery branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), where she set up the youth council. The Montgomery NAACP chapter decided to take up segregation on public transport - continuing a long tradition of African American direct action on buses. Rosa Parks had been ejected from a bus in 1943 when she refused to enter through the back door, and became known to drivers, who would sometimes refuse to let her on. In the late 1940s the Alabama State Conference of NAACP branches was formed and Rose Parks became its first secretary. This brought her into contact with longstanding civil rights campaigners. These included the labour leader A Philip Randolph, who was president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) from 1925 to 1968. In 1941 he had led a march of 50,000 against unfair government and war industry employment practices, which resulted in the Fair Employment Practices Commission. Parks also knew Ella Baker, who had worked with the Young Negroes Cooperative League under the 1930s New Deal and then organised for the NAACP in the south, becoming field secretary in 1940. It was to be Baker who later helped create the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), bringing ideas of non-violent direct action and collective leadership to a new generation.

There was continuity between the NAACP's work during the 1940s and the civil rights movement locally in Montgomery. Parks had worked closely with the local president of the NAACP in Montgomery, ED Nixon. He had also led the local Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters for 15 years and was president of the Progressive Democrats. The emergent civil rights movement was thus linked to a whole range of progressive labour and social movements, and individuals often took part in several organisations.

In the early 1950s people were coming to Nixon with their complaints and the idea of a boycott was in the air. The first mass bus boycott had occurred in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1953 and the same tactic was tried in Virginia with some success. In 1954 a group of professional black women in Montgomery, the Women's Political Council (WPC), led by Jo Ann Robinson, had protested to the mayor about segregation on the buses, telling him that feeling was so strong that 25 local organisations were discussing a boycott.

Then, early in 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was dragged off a bus and arrested. The NAACP was ready to take up her case. Inspired by the great victory against segregation in education, which had been won in 1954 with the Supreme Court Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka decision, they wanted to challenge the law. However Claudette Colvin turned out to be pregnant, and they knew this would bring bad publicity.

Parks, by contrast, was married, respectable, quiet and dignified. She understood local politics and, moreover, had been encouraged by a white civil rights campaigner Virginia Durr, whose husband acted as a lawyer for the NAACP, to attend the Tennessee Highlander Folk school which taught courses on how to resist segregation.

Parks left Montgomery Fair, the department store where she did repairs on men's clothing, as usual on December 1. It was true that she was tired after work and pain in her shoulders, back and neck was troubling her. By chance the bus driver happened to be the very man who had forced her off the bus back in 1943. She did not, as myth would have it, sit in the whites-only front part, but sat beside a black man at the back. As more white people got on the driver told her to give up her seat. She refused. "If you don't stand up, I'm going to call the police," he threatened. To which she replied, "You may do that."

Arrested, found guilty of violating the segregation law and fined, she consulted with her husband and her mother and decided that her arrest would serve as the test case. ED Nixon set about organising the boycott immediately. Jo Ann Robinson and Mary Fair Burks of the WPC announced her arrest to the students and teachers at Alabama State college, telling them that a boycott was being organised. They began mimeographing leaflets and getting them distributed. Nixon meanwhile contacted church leaders and progressive ministers, including Ralph Abernathy and EN French, who presented demands to the bus company on December 5. A coalition of local groups formed the Montgomery Improvement Association, which coordinated the boycott.

On the evening of December 5 thousands of people gathered at the Holt Street Baptist church where the young preacher Martin Luther King praised Rosa Parks as "one of the finest citizens of Montgomery" and called for action in protest against her arrest. His speech, which was televised, invoked American democracy, with biblical images of a righteous pilgrimage and a commitment to justice and equality for all. "We in Montgomery," he proclaimed, "are determined to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Ninety-eight per cent of Montgomery's black citizens participated in the boycott which lasted for 381 days. Nearly 100 people were arrested, including Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. In January and February 1956, the houses of Nixon and King were bombed. The boycott spread to Tallahassee that May. On December 20, the Supreme Court supported the decision of a lower court and federal injunctions were served on the bus company officials to end segregation. Montgomery's buses were integrated on December 21 1956.

A great victory had been won. But Parks was sacked from her tailoring job and, in 1957 left Montgomery for Detroit, following harassment.

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(1) Tobias Ronge, Bild des Herrschers in Malerei und Grafik (2011) page 223

(2) Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (1988) page 124

(3) Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (2006) page 104

(4) Instructions produced by George Houser and Bayard Rustin for the Journey of Reconciliation (April, 1947)

(5) Bayard Rustin, Louisiana Weekly (1st April, 1947)