The Century of Rosa Parks

— Dianne Feeley

ROSA PARKS WAS a veteran militant of many civil rights battles long before she became an icon. Born Rosa Louise McCauley on February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama, she grew up on her maternal grandparents’#8221; farm outside Montgomery. Having dropped out of high school to care for her grandmother, she married Raymond Parks in 1932 and finished high school with his encouragement. Both were registered voters and members of the Voters’#8221; League.

When she joined the Montgomery NAACP in 1943, Rosa Parks was its only female member; shortly afterward she became the chapter’#8221;s secretary. The following year she traveled to Abbeville to defend a 24-year-old mother who had been kidnapped on her way home from church by seven armed white men who gang-raped and left her on the side of the road. Parks helped form the Committee for Equal Justice and publicized the case nationally. However, two all-white grand juries refused to indict the perpetrators.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Montgomery had passed an ordinance that segregated passengers with a moveable sign that differentiated the white and colored sections. There was no requirement that Blacks move once seated, but once the white section filled up bus drivers did move the sign, forcing a whole row of African Americans to stand. They also required Blacks to board the bus, pay the fare and, if whites were already seated, to exit and reenter through the rear door. Many, including Rosa Parks, paid their fare but before they could reboard saw the bus take off.

On the evening of December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks was sitting in the colored section of a bus when the driver — the very same man who had drove off and left her standing in the rain a decade before — moved the “colored” sign down a row and demanded that four seated passengers, including Rosa Parks, vacate their seats. Parks insisted she had a right to remain seated; he told her that he’#8221;d call the police unless she complied. She refused and was arrested for violating city law.

The NAACP had been looking for a test case to challenge the law and Rosa Parks agreed. JoAnn Robinson, a professor at Alabama State College and member of the Women’#8221;s Political Council, proposed a one-day boycott of the buses on December 5, the day for Parks’#8221; trial. Robinson and E.D. Nixon, a Pullman worker and civil rights activist, called for a mass meeting the night before; the WPC quickly produced and distributed 50,000 leaflets. On Monday the buses rumbled along their routes virtually empty.

That night, after Parks was convicted and fined, a meeting founded the Montgomery Improvement Association; the new minister in town, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., agreed to serve as president. The MIA decided to extend the boycott, raising the demands that Black riders should be treated with courtesy, seated on a first-come basis and that Blacks be hired as drivers. The African-American community organized carpools, traveled in Black-operated cabs that charged ten cents — the bus fare — or walked.

During the 381-day boycott, segregationists retaliated by torching Black churches and both the King and Nixon homes. The city forced the cancellation of the taxi insurance and arrested Blacks under an old anti-boycotting law. But the following June, a federal court declared the bus segregation law unconstitutional, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ruling. Montgomery was forced to repeal its law.

Fired from the department store where she worked as a seamstress and with her husband forced from his job at a barbershop, she moved her family to Detroit where she remained an activist. Before her death in 2005 she set up the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, whose mission focuses on educating Black youth.

March/April 2013, ATC 163