Rosa Parks – icon of the civil rights movement

This week’s fascinating female is one that most of you will know about, but Rosa Parks’ story deserves retelling because it’s so inspirational. Born Rosa Louise McCauley in Alabama in 1913, she was brought up on her grandparent’s farm at a time when segregation in the Southern states was the norm. Each day she had to walk to school while white students took the school buses. Her mother and grandparents – both former slaves – encouraged Rosa to become active in the civil rights movement. At the age of nineteen she married a fellow activist of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Raymond Parks, and worked on various campaigns and cases but none gained public support.

On December 1, 1955, after a busy day working as a seamstress, she boarded a Montgomery City bus and sat near the middle, behind the ten seats reserved for whites. When all the seats were filled and a white man boarded the bus, the driver insisted that all four people behind the white section stand up so the man could sit there – this was standard practice. Rosa, however, quietly refused to give up her seat. The action was unplanned – people said afterwards that she was tired, but she said in her autobiography that “the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” Interestingly, she’d been thrown off the bus twelve years earlier by the same driver for refusing to pay at the front and then going to the back door to board. Since then, she’d avoided the bus if she saw that he was driving, but that day wasn’t paying attention.

She was arrested for civil disobedience but appealed against her conviction. She wasn’t the first woman to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat – Claudette Colvin had been arrested for the same action – but Claudette was a teenager and became pregnant while unmarried. Respectable Rosa was a more powerful representative of the movement. What followed was a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system – a serious threat to the bus company as 75% of its passengers were black. White backlash against the boycott was brutal – a shotgun was fired through the front door of fellow Montgomery activist Martin Luther King, and churches were bombed, but the protest ultimately succeeded. In December 1956, segregation of buses was made illegal

Although Rosa quickly achieved iconic status, her action brought her hardship. She and her husband lost their job as a result of the publicity and were the victim of so many death threats that they were forced to move to Detroit. Rosa developed stomach ulcers and a heart condition and suffered chronic insomnia. Raymond turned to drink and suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of the harassment. Rosa didn’t find full employment until 1965, when she worked for a congressman.

Despite her fame and many public speaking engagements, Rosa lived frugally, donating most of her money to civil rights causes. She co-founded the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation, which awards scholarships to high school seniors, and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, which helps young people get involved in their communities. When she died in 2005 at the age of 92 her body was allowed to lie in honour at the US Capitol, the first woman and second African American to be given this honour.