Biography of Rosa Parks, Civil Rights Pioneer

Rosa Parks getting fingerprinted by police

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Rosa Parks (February 4, 1913–October 24, 2005) was a civil rights activist in Alabama when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white person: her case touched off the Montgomery Bus Boycott and was a significant milestone in forcing the Supreme Court to end segregation. She once said, "When people made up their minds that they wanted to be free and took action, then there was change. But they couldn't rest on just that change. It has to continue." Parks' words encapsulate her work as a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement.

Fast Facts

  • Known For: Civil rights activist in the American south of 1950s and 1960s
  • Born: February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama
  • Parents: James and Leona Edwards McCauley 
  • Died: October 24, 2005 in Detroit, Michigan
  • Education: Alabama State Teacher's College for Negroes
  • Spouse: Raymond Parks
  • Children: None

Early Life

Rosa Louise McCauley was born on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama. Her mother Leona Edwards was a teacher and her father James McCauley was a carpenter.

Early in Parks' childhood, she moved to Pine Level, right outside the state capital of Montgomery. Parks was a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and attended primary school until the age of 11.

Parks walked to school every day and realized the disparity between black and white children. In her biography, Parks recalled, "I'd see the bus pass every day. But to me, that was a way of life; we had no choice but to accept what was the custom. The bus was among the first ways I realized there was a black world and white world."

Education and Family

Parks continued her education at the Alabama State Teacher's College for Negroes for Secondary Education. However, after a few semesters, Parks returned home to care for her ailing mother and grandmother.

In 1932, Parks married Raymond Parks, a barber and a member of the NAACP. Parks became involved in the NAACP through her husband, helping to raise money for the Scottsboro Boys. In the daytime, Parks worked as a maid and hospital aide before finally receiving her high school diploma in 1933.

Civil Rights Movement

In 1943, Parks became even more involved in the Civil Rights Movement and was elected secretary of the NAACP. Of this experience, Parks said, "I was the only woman there, and they needed a secretary, and I was too timid to say no." The following year, Parks used her role as secretary to research the gang rape of Recy Taylor. As a result, other local activist established the "Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor." Through the help of newspapers such as The Chicago Defender, the incident received national attention.

While working for a liberal white couple, Parks was encouraged to attend the Highlander Folk School, a center for activism in worker's rights and social equality.

Following her education at this school, Parks attended a meeting in Montgomery address the Emmitt Till case. At the end of the meeting, it was decided that African-Americans needed to do more to fight for their rights.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott

It was a few weeks before Christmas in 1955 when Rosa Parks boarded a bus after working as a seamstress. Taking a seat in the "colored" section of the bus, Parks was asked by a white man to get up and move so that he could sit. Parks refused. As a result, the police were called and Parks was arrested.

Parks' refusal to move her seat ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a protest that lasted 381 days and pushed Martin Luther King Jr. into the national spotlight. Throughout the boycott, King referred to Parks as "the great fuse that led to the modern stride toward freedom."

Parks was not the first woman to refuse to give up her seat on a public bus. In 1945, Irene Morgan was arrested for the same act. And several months before Parks, Sarah Louise Keys and Claudette Covin committed the same transgression. However, NAACP leaders argued that Parks—with her long history as a local activist—would be able to see a court challenge through. As a result, Parks was considered an iconic figure in the Civil Rights Movement and the fight against racism and segregation in the United States.

Following the Boycott

Although Parks' courage allowed her to become a symbol of the growing movement, she and her husband suffered severely. Park was fired from her job at the local department store. No longer feeling safe in Montgomery, the Parks moved to Detroit as part of the Great Migration.

While living in Detroit, Parks served as secretary for U.S. Representative John Conyers from 1965 to 1969.

Retirement

Following her retirement from Conyers' office, Parks devoted her time to documenting and continuing to support the civil rights work she had begun in the 1950s. In 1979, Parks received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP. In 1987, the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development was incorporated by Parks and long-time friend Elaine Eason Steele, to teach, support, and encourage leadership and civil rights in young people.

She wrote two books: "Rosa Parks: My Story," in 1992, and "Quiet Strength: The Faith, the Hope and the Heart of a Woman Who Changed a Nation," in 1994. A collection of her letters was published in 1996, called "Dear Mrs. Parks: A Dialogue With Today's Youth." She was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (in 1996, from President Bill Clinton), the Congressional Gold Medal (in 1999), and many other accolades.

In 2000, the Rosa Parks Museum and Library at Troy State University in Montgomery was opened near where she had been arrested. 

Death

Parks died of natural causes at the age of 92 in her home in Detroit, Michigan on October 24, 2005. She was the first woman and second non-U.S. government official to lie in honor at the Capitol Rotunda.

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