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Rosa Parks: Mother of the Civil Rights Movement

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Rosa Parks

Civil rights leader Rosa Parks in 1988 at a ceremony held in her honor at the House of the Lord Church in New York.

Angel Franco/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Overview

Rosa Parks 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.

Before the Boycott

Born Rosa Louise McCauley on February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Ala. Her mother, Leona was a teacher and her father James, was a carpenter. Early in Parks' childhood, she moved to Pine Level, right outside the capitol of Montgomery. Parks was a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and attended primary school until the age of 11. Everyday Parks walked to school 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." She continued 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 member of the NAACP. Through her husband, Parks became involved in the NAACP as well, 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.

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 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.

Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

 

It was 1955 and just a few weeks before Christmas and 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 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.

Following her retirement, Parks wrote an autobiography and lived a private life. In 1979, Parks received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP. She was also the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal

When Parks died in 2005, she became the first woman and second non-U.S. government official to lie in honor at the Capitol Rotunda.

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