February's Woman of the Month: Rosa Parks
Updated: Feb 26
February is Black History Month and so it seems only fitting that this post is dedicated to the the first lady of civil rights Rosa Parks.
Rosa was born Rosa Louise McCauley in Alabama, 1913. Her parents were African Americans but one of her great-grandfathers was Scottish and one great-grandmother was a Native American slave. Rosa's parents separated shortly after her birth and she was brought up on her grandparents farm. She proved to be a bright student, and attended the Alabama State University, or as it was known then, Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes. Rosa recalled the walk to elementary school whilst the whites-only school bus drove past, "The bus was among the first ways I realised there was a black world and a white world". Unfortunately, Rosa's promising education was cut short and she was forced to act as caregiver to her ailing grandmother and mother.
Under the Jim Crow laws, racial segregation poisoned every part of life for African Americans. Public transport, retail stores and public facilities were all racially segregated and African Americans were disenfranchised. Rosa remembered one terrifying childhood incident, when, as the Ku Klux Klan marched down their street, her grandfather was forced to guard the front door with a shotgun.
In 1932, the 19-year old Rosa married Raymond Parks, a member of the NAACP and encouraged by her husband, Rosa went back to school. She was one of only 7% of African American's to receive a high school diploma at that time.
INTRODUCTION TO ACTIVISM
No doubt influenced by her husband's passion for justice, Rosa became active in the civil rights movement as a secretary and began investigating the gang-rape of a black woman from Alabama. Rosa and her husband were also part of the League of Women Voters, a group which advocated for women to have better access to public roles following the victory of female suffrage. Rosa was effectively damned twice over, firstly as a black person and secondly as a woman. it is important to remember that she fought tooth and nail to have her voice heard by the leading men of the civil rights movement who were not immune to the gender stereotypes of the 1950s.
By 1955, Rosa worked in the household of a liberal white couple. They encouraged Rosa to attend an education centre for activism where she was mentored by one of the most influential players in the movement, Septima Clark. A pivotal moment for the movement occurred in1955 when Emmett Till, a 14 year old boy, was brutally murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman in a grocers. Till's case garnered significant attention from the American media, far more than any of the cases Rosa had worked on. In a sickening miscarriage of justice, the killers were never prosecuted and this left a lasting impact on a devastated Rosa.
Rosa makes a stand
On 1st December 1955, Rosa left work and bordered a bus in downtown Montgomery at around 6pm. As the bus route progressed, the white section reached capacity and the driver ordered four black people to give up their seats in the "coloured" section. Rosa's fellow passengers acquiesced but instead Rosa simply moved to the window seat. The recent murder of Emmett Till was on her mind and she had grown tired of submitting to such a hateful system. The driver warned her "If you don't stand up, I'm going to have to call the police and have you arrested", "You may do that" Rosa replied. She was charged with violating segregation laws but was bailed from jail by friends from the NAACP that evening. This marked a turning point for Rosa; following this, her activism became more public and more extreme.
Shortly after she was bailed, Rosa helped plan the Montgomery Bus Boycott and she was charged and fined for disorderly conduct. Rosa appealed her conviction and formally challenged the legality of racial segregation; this was virtually unheard of. Later, in a 1992 interview, Rosa explained "I had not planned to get arrested. I had plenty to do without having to end up in jail. But when I had to face that decision, I didn't hesitate to do so because I felt that we had endured that too long. The more we gave in, the more we complied with that kind of treatment, the more oppressive it became."
The bus boycott was an unprecedented and extremely successful stand taken by the black community. That day, over 40,000 black commuters walked up to 20 miles in heavy rain instead of taking the bus. The day after, the Montgomery Improvement Association was founded, with the relatively unknown figure of Martin Luther King Jr as its president. But Rosa was soon arrested again, along with 73 others, for inciting the Montgomery bus boycott. Over 50 leaders of the NAACP gathered to discuss their response to Rosa's arrest. Black residents continued the bus boycott for a staggering 381 days! In this time, dozens of buses fell into disuse until the city finally repealed the segregation laws on public transport. On 21st December 1956, Montgomery's transport system was legally integrated, thanks to Rosa's actions.
Rosa was a vital cog in the wheel of the civil rights movement by raising international awareness of the plight of African-Americans; MLK Jr stated that Rosa was the catalyst of the protest and she became lasting friends with civil rights icon Malcolm X. But this was not without its consequences; economic sanctions against activists caused Rosa to lose her job and she received death threats daily.
Rosa's Later Years
Rosa became a national activist, travelling up and down America to support the Freedom Now Movement, Black Power movement and events such as the Selma to Montgomery Marches. In the 1970's, she advocated for the freedom of political prisoners. Rosa's activism helped acquit Joann Little and she supported countless other cases concerning wrongful arrest. Rosa's commitment to the civil rights movement was ceaseless, and the majority of the money she earned was donated to civil rights causes. Despite ill health and personal loss, Rosa continued in her activism up to her death.
She founded the Rosa Parks Scholarship Foundation which granted scholarship funds for students in economic need and most of her fees from public speaking were gifted here. With her husband and close friend, she also founded an institute for the self-development of black Americans and community betterment.
In the 1990s, Rosa released two books. The first, an autobiography recounting her life leading to her refusal to give up her bus seat and the second, a memoir focusing on her faith.
Rosa died in 2005, after a long and eventful life, aged 92. Her legacy can be summarised by a speech made at her memorial service by black American diplomat Condi Rice who said that without Parks' activism, she would never have become Secretary of State. Rosa's casket lay in state at the US capital rotunda, she was the 31st American to be honoured this way. Thousands of Americans lined the streets of the funeral procession; and 50,000 more watched via a TV broadcast. This extraordinary selfless and dedicated woman was truly an icon of her times and her legacy is still felt strongly today. Rosa was the catalyst for an international protest for the equality of black people; we must carry her spirit into the fight against racial injustice today.
I have really enjoyed writing about the quiet strength and awe-inspiring dedication of the indomitable Rosa Parks. Rosa serves as a reminder to us all that small acts are infinitely valuable to the larger cause; especially in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement.
- Ellie x