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Rosa Parks
Rosa Parks in 1955, with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the background
Rosa Louise McCauley

(1913-02-04)February 4, 1913
Died October 24, 2005(2005-10-24) (aged 92)
Nationality American
Occupation Civil rights activist
Known for Montgomery Bus Boycott
Home town Tuskegee, Alabama
Spouse(s) Raymond Parks (1932–1977)
Rosa Parks Signature.svg

Rosa Louise McCauley Parks (February 4, 1913 – October 24, 2005) was an American activist in the civil rights movement best known for her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott. The United States Congress has called her "the first lady of civil rights" and "the mother of the freedom movement".

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Parks rejected bus driver James F. Blake's order to give up her seat in the "colored section" to a white passenger, after the whites-only section was filled. Parks was not the first person to resist bus separation, but the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) believed that she was the best candidate for seeing through a court challenge after her arrest for civil disobedience in violating Alabama segregation laws.

Parks' position in the community and her willingness to become a controversial figure inspired the black community to boycott (avoid) the Montgomery buses for over a year, the first major direct action campaign of the post-war civil rights movement. Her case became bogged down in the state courts, but the federal Montgomery bus lawsuit Browder v. Gayle succeeded in November 1956.

Parks' act of defiance and the Montgomery bus boycott became important symbols of the movement. She became an international icon of resistance to racial segregation. She organized and collaborated with civil rights leaders, including Edgar Nixon, president of the local chapter of the NAACP; and Martin Luther King, Jr., a new minister in Montgomery who gained national prominence in the civil rights movement and went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Early life

Sampson Smith w- Rosa McCauley Parks LCCN2015647353
Rosa McCauley Parks 1920

Rosa Parks was born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama, on February 4, 1913, to Leona (née Edwards), a teacher, and James McCauley, a carpenter. She was small as a child and suffered poor health with chronic tonsillitis. When her parents separated, she moved with her mother to Pine Level, just outside the state capital, Montgomery. She grew up on a farm with her grandparents, mother, and younger brother Sylvester.

McCauley attended rural schools until the age of eleven. As a student at the Industrial School for Girls in Montgomery, she took academic and vocational courses. Parks went on to a school set up by the Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes for secondary education, but dropped out in order to care for her grandmother and later her mother, after they became ill.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the former Confederate states had adopted new laws that effectively refused black voters and, in Alabama, many poor white voters as well. Under the white-established Jim Crow laws, racial segregation was imposed in public facilities and retail stores in the South, including public transportation. Bus and train companies enforced seating policies with separate sections for blacks and whites. School bus transportation was unavailable in any form for black school children in the South, and black education was always underfunded.

Parks recalled going to elementary school in Pine Level, where school buses took white students to their new school and black students had to walk to theirs: "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 a white world."

Although Parks' autobiography recounts early memories of the kindness of white strangers, she could not ignore the racism of her society. When the Ku Klux Klan marched down the street in front of their house, Parks recalls her grandfather guarding the front door with a shotgun. The Montgomery Industrial School, founded and staffed by white northerners for black children, was burned twice by arsonists. After 5 years, she left school and went to work in a shirt factory. She also took care of her grandmother.

Arrest and conviction

Rosa Parks' arrest
Booking photo of Parks
Police report on Parks, December 1, 1955, page 1
Police report on Parks, December 1, 1955, page 2
Rosa Parks being fingerprinted by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey
Fingerprint card of Parks

On December 1, 1955, Parks got onto a city bus to go home after work. She paid her 10¢ and sat down in the first row of seats behind the painted line on the floor which marked the black section. The Montgomery city code made bus drivers segregate white and black passengers. They were directed to assign seats based on a person's color. Black people in Montgomery made up 75 to 80 percent of bus riders. But they were crowded into the back seats of the buses and many had to stand while the front seats remained empty.

After several stops, more white passengers got on the bus. The bus driver ordered Parks and three other black people to give up their seats so the white people could sit down. The other three moved to the back of the bus, but Parks slid over to the window. She said she was following the law by sitting in the right section. The driver stopped the bus and called police. Two police officers arrested Parks and took her to jail for violating Alabama's bus laws.

Her mother called upon Edgar Nixon to bail her out. Nixon was the president of the local NAACP chapter. Nixon knew the danger Parks was in and immediately arranged her bail. The local NAACP had been looking for a case to challenge the bus separation laws. Parks was a respected working woman. She was well-spoken, and her case would be a good way to challenge the law. It was decided that on December 5, a boycott (refusal of using the transport), of all the buses in Montgomery would be held.

The word was spread throughout the black community of the intended bus boycott. Black ministers told their congregations to support the boycott. On Monday, December 5th, Rosa Parks had to appear in court. This was also the first day black riders would stay off the Montgomery buses. The streets of Montgomery were filled with black people walking to work. Black children walked to school.

That same morning, all Montgomery buses were assigned two motorcycle policemen to guard against any black gangs intimidating riders. There were no black gangs. The black community simply cooperated with the boycott. The buses remained empty all day. White riders fearing trouble stayed off the buses as well.

In addition to the charge of violating the bus laws, Parks was also charged with disorderly conduct. Her trial was quick, only about 30 minutes. The court found her guilty of all charges and fined her $14. The boycott continued.

Parks appealed her conviction. Her attorney, Fred Parks, and others in the NAACP brought an appeal named Browder v. Gayle. Aurelia Browder was another black woman who had been discriminated against by the bus system, was the lead person. Three other woman joined her but not Rosa Parks. The case was also named for the lead defendant W.A. Gayle, who was the mayor of Montgomery. The appeals court ruled on June 19, 1956 in favor of the black citizens of Montgomery. But the city appealed the decision. On September 13, 1956, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the lower court.

The bus boycott ended. It had lasted 381 days. Black citizens of Montgomery could ride the buses and sit where they chose. Rosa Parks rode the bus again on December 21, 1956. This time it was a integrated bus, as it turned out she had the same bus driver who had her arrested the year before.

Rosa Parks was a heroine of the black community. While she didn't do it alone, her actions sparked a fire that led to great changes.

After the boycott

President Bill Clinton awarding Parks the Presidential Medal of Freedom

After the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Parks went through many difficulties. She lost her job at the department store. Her husband was forced to quit his job. In 1957, Parks and her husband left Montgomery for Hampton, Virginia to find work. In Hampton, Parks found a job as a hostess in an inn at Hampton Institute, a historically black college.

Later, Parks and her husband moved to Detroit, Michigan. Parks continued to work as an activist. For years, she worked for United States Congressman John Conyers. After that, she worked as an activist against apartheid in South Africa. She also opened a center in Detroit that gave advice to black youth about careers and job opportunities.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded Parks a Congressional Gold Medal. This is the United States' highest honor (most important award) for civilians. When he gave her the award, President Clinton said: We must never ever, when this ceremony is over, forget about the power of ordinary people to stand in the fire for the cause of human dignity.

Death and funeral

Rosa Parks lying in state
The casket of Rosa Parks at the U.S. Capitol rotunda

Parks died of natural causes on October 24, 2005, at the age of 92, in her apartment on the east side of Detroit. She and her husband never had children and she outlived her only sibling. She was survived by her sister-in-law (Raymond's sister), 13 nieces and nephews and their families, and several cousins, most of them residents of Michigan or Alabama.

City officials in Montgomery and Detroit announced on October 27, 2005, that the front seats of their city buses would be reserved with black ribbons in honor of Parks until her funeral. Parks' coffin was flown to Montgomery and taken in a horse-drawn hearse to the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church on October 29, 2005. A memorial service was held there the following morning. One of the speakers, United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said that if it had not been for Parks, she would probably have never become the Secretary of State. In the evening the casket was transported to Washington, D.C. and transported by a bus similar to the one in which she made her protest, to lie in honor in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

She was the first woman and the second black person to lie in honor in the Capitol. An estimated 50,000 people viewed the casket there, and the event was broadcast on television on October 31, 2005. A memorial service was held that afternoon at Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, DC.

LaSalle 1940 hearse Rosa Parks
1940 LaSalle hearse that transported the casket of Rosa Parks — in Detroit, Michigan - November 2, 2005

Her funeral service was seven hours long and was held on November 2, 2005, at the Greater Grace Temple Church in Detroit. After the service, an honor guard from the Michigan National Guard laid the U.S. flag over the casket and carried it to a horse-drawn hearse, which was intended to carry it, in daylight, to the cemetery. As the hearse passed the thousands of people who were viewing the procession, many clapped, cheered loudly and released white balloons.

Parks was placed between her husband and mother at Detroit's Woodlawn Cemetery in the chapel's mausoleum. The chapel was renamed the Rosa L. Parks Freedom Chapel in her honor.

Legacy and honors

Rosa Parks Transit Center Detroit Michigan
Rosa Parks Transit Center, Detroit
Barack Obama in the Rosa Parks bus
U.S. President Barack Obama sitting on the bus. Parks was arrested sitting in the same row Obama is in, but on the opposite side
Rosa Parks' Bus Stop
A plaque entitled "The Bus Stop" at Dexter Ave. and Montgomery St.—the place Rosa Parks boarded the bus—pays tribute to her and the success of the Montgomery bus boycott
Rosa parks bus
The No. 2857 bus on which Parks was riding before her arrest (a GM "old-look" transit bus, serial number 1132), is now a museum exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum
Bush signs Rosa Parks statue bill
Bush signs Rosa Parks statue bill
Rosa Parks Statue in National Statuary Hall (8513594100)
Rosa Parks Statue in National Statuary Hall
Rosa Parks Library and Museum
The Rosa Parks Library and Museum on Troy University's campus in Montgomery, Alabama
Rosa Parks sculpture (plaque), Eugene, Oregon
Rosa Parks plaque, Eugene, Oregon
Gesundbrunnen Wriezener Straße Rosa-Parks-Haus-002
Rosa Parks house
Unveiling the Rosa Parks commemorative stamp (8454700518)
Unveiling the new Rosa Parks postage stamp on what would have been Mrs. Parks’ 100th birthday
Sculpture of Rosa Parks - Birmingham Civil Rights Institute - Birmingham - Alabama - USA (34376349676)
Sculpture of Rosa Parks - Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Birmingham, Alabama
  • 1976: Detroit renamed 12th Street "Rosa Parks Boulevard."
  • 1979: The NAACP awarded Parks the Spingarn Medal, its highest honor.
  • 1980: Received the Martin Luther King Jr. Award.
  • 1983: Was inducted into Michigan Women's Hall of Fame for her achievements in civil rights.
  • 1984: Received a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.
  • 1990: Parks was invited to be part of the group welcoming Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison in South Africa.
  • Parks was in attendance as part of Interstate 475 outside of Toledo, Ohio was named after her.
  • 1992: Received the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award along with Dr. Benjamin Spock and others at the Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston, Massachusetts.
  • 1993: Inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
  • 1994: Received an honorary doctorate from Florida State University in Tallahassee, FL.
  • 1994: Received an honorary doctorate from Soka University in Tokyo, Japan.
  • 1995: Received the Academy of Achievement's Golden Plate Award in Williamsburg, Virginia.
  • 1996: Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given by the US executive branch.
  • 1998: Was the first to receive the International Freedom Conductor Award given by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
  • 1999: she received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award given by the US legislative branch, the medal bears the legend "Mother of the Modern Day Civil Rights Movement"
  • Received the Windsor–Detroit International Freedom Festival Freedom Award.
  • Time named Parks one of the 20 most influential and iconic figures of the 20th century.
  • President Bill Clinton honored her in his State of the Union address, saying, "She's sitting down with the first lady tonight, and she may get up or not as she chooses."
  • 2000: Her home state awarded her the Alabama Academy of Honor.
  • Received the first Governor's Medal of Honor for Extraordinary Courage.
  • Awarded two dozen honorary doctorates from universities worldwide.
  • Made an honorary member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
  • The Rosa Parks Library and Museum on the campus of Troy University in Montgomery was dedicated to her.
  • 2002: Scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Parks on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
  • A portion of the Interstate 10 freeway in Los Angeles was named in her honor.
  • 2003: Bus No. 2857 on which Parks was riding was restored and placed on display in The Henry Ford museum.
  • 2004: The Los Angeles County MetroRail system was been officially named the "Rosa Parks Station".
  • 2005: On October 30, 2005 President George W. Bush issued a proclamation ordering that all flags on U.S. public areas both within the country and abroad be flown at half-staff on the day of Parks' funeral.
  • The American Public Transportation Association declared December 1, 2005, the 50th anniversary of her arrest, to be a "National Transit Tribute to Rosa Parks Day".
  • On that anniversary, President George W. Bush declared that a statue of Parks be placed in the United States Capitol's National Statuary Hall.
  • Portion of Interstate 96 in Detroit was renamed by the state legislature as the Rosa Parks Memorial Highway in December 2005.
  • 2006: At Super Bowl XL, played at Detroit's Ford Field, long-time Detroit residents Coretta Scott King and Parks were remembered and honored by a moment of silence.
  • February 14, Nassau County, New York Executive, Thomas Suozzi announced that the Hempstead Transit Center would be renamed the Rosa Parks Hempstead Transit Center in her honor.
  • October 27, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell signed a bill into law designating the portion of Pennsylvania Route 291 through Chester as the Rosa Parks Memorial Highway.
  • 2007: Nashville, Tennessee, renamed MetroCenter Boulevard (8th Avenue North) (US 41A and SR 12) as Rosa L. Parks Boulevard.
  • 2009: July 14, 2009, the Rosa Parks Transit Center opened in Detroit at the corner of Michigan and Cass Avenues.
  • 2010: Grand Rapids, Michigan, a plaza in the heart of the city was named Rosa Parks Circle.
  • 2012: President Barack Obama visited the famous Rosa Parks bus at the Henry Ford Museum after an event in Dearborn, Michigan, April 18, 2012.
  • A street in West Valley City, Utah leading to the Utah Cultural Celebration Center was renamed Rosa Parks Drive.
  • 2013: February 1, President Barack Obama proclaimed February 4, 2013, as the "100th Anniversary of the Birth of Rosa Parks." He called "upon all Americans to observe this day with appropriate service, community, and education programs to honor Rosa Parks's enduring legacy."
  • February 4, to celebrate Rosa Parks' 100th birthday, the Henry Ford Museum declared the day a "National Day of Courage" with 12 hours of virtual and on-site activities. The actual bus on which Rosa Parks sat was made available for the public to board and sit in the seat that Rosa Parks refused to give up.
  • February 4, 2,000 birthday wishes gathered from people throughout the United States were transformed into 200 graphics messages at a celebration held on her 100th Birthday at the Davis Theater for the Performing Arts in Montgomery, Alabama. This was the 100th Birthday Wishes Project managed by the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University and the Mobile Studio and was also a declared event by the Senate.
  • During both events the USPS unveiled a postage stamp in her honor.
  • February 27, Parks became the first African-American woman to have her likeness depicted in National Statuary Hall. The monument is a part of the Capitol Art Collection among nine other females featured in the National Statuary Hall Collection.
  • 2014: The asteroid 284996 Rosaparks, discovered in 2010 by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, was named in her memory.
  • 2015: The papers of Rosa Parks were cataloged into the Library of Congress, after years of a legal battle.
  • December 13, the new Rosa Parks Railway Station opened in Paris.
  • 2016: the house lived in by Rosa Parks's brother, Sylvester McCauley, his wife Daisy, and their 13 children, and where Rosa Parks often visited and stayed after leaving Montgomery, was bought by her niece Rhea McCauley for $500 and donated to the artist Ryan Mendoza. It was dismantled and shipped to Berlin where it was re-erected in Mendoza's garden. In 2018 it was returned to the United States and rebuilt at the Waterfire Arts Center, Providence, Rhode Island, where it was put on public display.

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