Rosa Louise McCauley Parks
Born February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama, Died October 24, 2005 in Detroit, Michigan
Her feet were not tired.
She was always annoyed by that myth which, over the years, grew up like weeds around the history-making thing she did on a Montgomery, Alabama bus on the first day of December in 1955. Her feet, she would always say, were no more tired that day than any other day. “The only tired I was,” she explained, “was tired of giving in.”
It was a species of fatigue that would have been readily understood by any African American living in Jim Crow’s America. That fatigue would have been particularly familiar to those African Americans who had to depend on public transportation in Montgomery. To do so was to subject yourself to a unending routine of petty abuses.
The drivers were insulting and rude. They required you to pay your fare at the front, then disembark and re-board through the back. Sometimes, they pulled off before you could get back on.
But the greatest offense was the system of Jim Crow seating: whites up front, Negroes in back. On that fateful afternoon, Parks took a seat in the front row of the colored section. The bus soon filled up and there came a point when a white man boarded and there was were no seats in the white section for him to sit. Driver James Blake announced that all four African-American passengers sitting in the first row of the colored section would have to give up their seats; under the law, not only could a white person and an African American not sit next to each other, they also couldn’t sit across from each other.
At first, none of the African-American passengers responded. Blake got out of his seat and approached the obstinate riders. “You better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats,” he warned. Three of the African American riders reluctantly got up and went to stand in the back. And then, all eyes turned to Rosa Parks, a tiny, quiet woman who worked as a seamstress at Montgomery Fair department store. Though no one on that bus could have known it at the time, this was a moment upon which history would turn, like a hinge.
Park’s road to that moment had begun 42 years earlier.
From childhood she had, like most African Americans, been indoctrinated in the cruel inequities of life in racially segregated America. She would carry for years the memory of how it felt to watch white kids bused to a newly-constructed school while she and her classmates walked to a one-room “colored” schoolhouse. When her parents separated, she moved with her mother to Pine Level, Alabama to live with her grandparents, both former slaves. Parks’ grandfather once took to the front of their house with a shotgun to guard his family and property as the Ku Klux Klan marched by in the street.
Parks would leave school in the 11th grade to tend to her sick mother and grandmother. When she was 19, she met and married a barber named Raymond Parks. He was an active member of the NAACP and his new wife would eventually join the pioneering civil rights organization as well, serving at one point as youth leader of the Montgomery chapter and also as secretary to president E.D. Nixon.
Segregation and its various indignities were, of course, an ever present reality. Once, in 1943, Parks boarded a bus, paid her fare, and was told to get off and re-board through the rear door. Before she could do so, the bus drove off, leaving her stranded at the curb. The driver, as it happened, was James Blake. Now, 12 years later, here he was, demanding that she give up her seat.
And Rosa Parks said no.
At that time, in that place, it was a dangerous, insurrectionist thing to do, a challenge to all the forces of law and custom. But Parks had simply reached her limit. She had had enough.
Blake tried to bully her, told her he could have her arrested. This did not persuade her. The driver left the bus and returned with two Montgomery police officers who asked if she had heard the bus driver ask for her seat. “Why do you all push us around?” replied Rosa Parks.
To which one of the officers responded, “I don’t know, but the law is the law, and you’re under arrest.”
It was an arrest that would galvanize Montgomery and, eventually, the entire country. The local NAACP had long sought a test case through which to challenge local segregation ordinances. It had almost found one in May of that year when a teenager named Claudette Colvin was arrested for the same infraction. But Colvin was pregnant and unmarried and had resisted arrest, using some pungent language to do so. The NAACP decided to wait for a more sympathetic figure. Parks, settled, soft-spoken and eminently respectable, was made to order.
Within days, what became known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott took shape. As its leader, the local civil rights establishment turned to a 26-year old preacher who had come to town only a year and a half before. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the first mass meeting to announce the boycott, the young minister explained its rationale with eight words that would detonate the crowd and resonate in history: “There comes a time when people get tired.”
This was an understatement. It turned out that people were tired enough to stay off the buses for 381 days, preferring to carpool, take taxis, ride with friends, or simply walk. They did this through the chill of winter and the heat of summer. They did it through municipal lawsuits and police harassment. They did it through bombings by the Ku Klux Klan. They did it until December of the following year, when the Supreme Court declared segregation on the buses to be unconstitutional.
By that time, Rosa Parks was long gone from Montgomery. She and her husband had been fired from their respective jobs and were unable to find work, so they relocated to Detroit, where Rosa worked in the office of Congressman John Conyers. She would also serve on the board of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In 1987, Parks founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development. She published an autobiography – Rosa Parks: My Story in 1992 – and a book about her faith – Quiet Strength – in 1995.
Over the course of her long life, Parks was the recipient of innumerable honors. She was awarded the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, the organization’s highest honor, and won both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Time magazine named her one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. When she died of dementia, her body lay in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, the first woman ever to do so.
She was the mother of what came to be known as the Civil Rights Movement, a 13-year epoch that would profoundly transform the country. The United States of America found itself challenged before the eyes of a watching world to finally live up to its founding creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
And it would begin with this quiet woman’s quiet refusal to acquiesce to a system that demeaned her, an act that, in scope and depth, would echo forever.
As Parks once told an interviewer, “The time had just come when I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed.”
Sources: TheGuardian.com, Biography.com, NYTimes.com, history.com, MontgomeryBoycott.com, WashingtonPost.com, LATimes.com, Parting The Waters by Taylor Branch