Quotes From Civil Rights Icon Rosa Parks

She was involved in civil justice before the Montgomery bus boycott

Rosa Parks
Rosa Parks, at ceremony being awarded Congressional Gold Medal, 1999. William Philpott/Getty Images

Rosa Parks was a civil rights activist, social reformer, and racial justice advocate. Her arrest for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus triggered the 1965-1966 Montgomery bus boycott and became a turning point of the civil rights movement.

Early Life, Work, and Marriage

Parks was born Rosa McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama, on Feb. 4, 1913. Her father, a carpenter, was James McCauley; her mother, Leona Edward McCauley, was a schoolteacher. Her parents separated when Rosa was 2, and she moved with her mother to Pine Level, Alabama. She became involved in the African Methodist Episcopal Church from early childhood.

Parks, who as a child worked in the fields, took care of her younger brother and cleaned classrooms for school tuition. She attended the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls and then the Alabama State Teachers' College for Negroes, finishing 11th grade there.

She married Raymond Parks, a self-educated man, in 1932 and at his urging completed high school. Raymond Parks was active in civil rights, raising money for the legal defense of the Scottsboro boys, a case in which nine African-American boys were accused of raping two white women. Rosa Parks began attending meetings with her husband about the cause.

She worked as a seamstress, office clerk, domestic, and nurse's assistant. She was employed for a time as a secretary on a military base, where segregation wasn't permitted, but she rode to and from work on segregated buses.

NAACP Activism

She joined the Montgomery, Alabama, NAACP chapter in December 1943, quickly becoming secretary. She interviewed people around Alabama about their experience of discrimination and worked with the NAACP on registering voters and desegregating transportation.

She was key in organizing the Committee for Equal Justice for Recy Taylor, a young African-American woman who had been raped by six white men.

In the late 1940s, Parks participated in discussions within civil rights activists about desegregating transportation. In 1953, a boycott in Baton Rouge succeeded in that cause, and the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education led to hopefulness for change.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks was riding a bus home from her job and sat in an empty section between the rows reserved for white passengers at the front and "colored" passengers" at the back. The bus filled up, and she and three other black passengers were expected to relinquish their seats because a white man was left standing. She refused to move when the bus driver approached them, and he called police. Parks was arrested for violating Alabama's segregation laws. The black community mobilized a boycott of the bus system, which lasted for 381 days and resulted in the end of segregation on Montgomery's buses. In June 1956, a judge ruled that bus transportation within a state couldn't be segregated. The U.S. Supreme Court later that year affirmed the ruling.

The boycott brought national attention to the civil rights cause and to a young minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

After the Boycott

Parks and her husband lost their jobs for being involved in the boycott. They moved to Detroit in August 1957 and continued their civil rights activism. Rosa Parks went to the 1963 March on Washington, site of King's "I Have a Dream" speech. In 1964 she helped elect John Conyers of Michigan to Congress. She also marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. After Conyers' election, Parks worked on his staff until 1988. Raymond Parks died in 1977.

In 1987, Parks founded a group to inspire and guide youth in social responsibility. She traveled and lectured often in the 1990s, reminding people of the history of the civil rights movement. She came to be called "the mother of the civil rights movement." She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999.

Death and Legacy

Parks continued her commitment to civil rights until her death, willingly serving as a symbol of the civil rights struggle. She died of natural causes on Oct. 24, 2005, at her Detroit home. She was 92. 

After her death, she was the subject of almost a full week of tributes, including being the first woman and second African-American who has lain in honor at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.

Selected Quotations

  • "I believe we are here on the planet Earth to live, grow up, and do what we can to make this world a better place for all people to enjoy freedom."
  • "I would like to be known as a person who is concerned about freedom and equality and justice and prosperity for all people."
  • "I'm tired of being treated like a second-class citizen."
  • "People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in."
  • "I knew someone had to take the first step, and I made up my mind not to move."
  • "Our mistreatment was just not right, and I was tired of it."
  • "I didn't want to pay my fare and then go around the back door, because many times, even if you did that, you might not get on the bus at all. They'd probably shut the door, drive off, and leave you standing there."
  • "At the time I was arrested I had no idea it would turn into this. It was just a day like any other day. The only thing that made it significant was that the masses of the people joined in."
  • "Each person must live their life as a model for others."
  • "I have learned over the years that when one's mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear."
  • "You must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right."
  • "From the time I was a child, I tried to protest against disrespectful treatment."
  • "Memories of our lives, of our works and our deeds will continue in others."
  • "God has always given me the strength to say what is right."
  • "Racism is still with us. But it is up to us to prepare our children for what they have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome."
  • "I do the very best I can to look ​upon life with optimism and hope and looking forward to a better day, but I don't think there is anything such as complete happiness. It pains me that there is still a lot of Klan activity and racism. I think when you say you're happy, you have everything that you need and everything that you want, and nothing more to wish for. I haven't reached that stage yet."