Even if you haven’t heard of Rosa Parks (shame!), chances are you’ve heard of the Civil Rights Movement. The civil rights movement was a struggle for social justice that took place mainly during the 1950s and 1960s for blacks to gain equal rights under the law in the United States.
Rosa was raised in a family that valued education and her mother was a teacher. She attended high school in Montgomery, Alabama till she was 16 and left to attend to her dying grandmother and then her chronically ill mother. When she turned 19 (in 1932) she married a 29-year-old self-educated man, Raymond Parks. He was a barber and long-time member of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). He supported Rosa to get her high school diploma.
Rosa started working as a seamstress, and both she and Raymond became active members of the African-American community in Montgomery. Montgomery was governed by the Jim Crow laws, which were segregation laws. This meant Blacks could only attend certain (inferior) schools, drink from specific water fountains, borrow from the black library, etc. Parks joined the NAACP and became chapter secretary despite Raymond’s apprehensions due to being concerned about her safety.
On the historical day of December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was riding the municipal bus. Most Black residents avoided the bus because of the ridiculous Negroes-in-back policy. The front of the bus was reserved for white citizens and the back for black citizens. The laws were contradictory, one law said segregation must be enforced while another said no person (black or white) could be forced to give up their seat even if there was no other seat available.
That day, a white man had no seat because all the seats in the ‘white section’ of the bus were occupied. The bus driver asked the riders in the first four seats of the ‘colored section’ to vacate the seats, three passengers did, but Rosa Parks did not. In her autobiography, she writes,
“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… No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Two police officers approached the stopped bus and took Parks into custody. By refusing to vacate her seat on a bus for a white man, Rosa Parks kicked off the civil rights movement in the United States. That day began the bus boycott that lasted over a year, that ended when the United States Supreme Court unconstitutionalised the bus segregation laws, on November 13, 1956.
She was bailed later that evening and became a symbol and the plaintiff that brought the issue of segregation laws to court. That night 35,000 flyers were mimeographed to distribute amongst black parents informing them about the boycott. The response was far beyond the most optimistic expectations.
After the boycott, Parks, her mother and husband received threats and continued harassment and decided to move to Detroit with her brother. She also became the admin aide in the Detroit office of Congressman John Conyers Jr. in 1965 which she did until she retired in 1988.
Post-retirement she travelled to support civil-rights events and wrote an autobiography, ‘Rosa Parks: My Story’. She was awarded the congressional gold medal, the highest honour the United States bestows upon a civilian.