(WOMENSENEWS)–Ninety years ago this week, in an America fraught with racism and state-enforced segregation, Rosa Louise McCauley was born in rural Alabama. This woman who had no more than a high school education would go on to become an American icon of unwavering resistance to oppression.
In “Quiet Strength: The Faith, the Hope, and the Heart of a Woman Who Changed a Nation,” an autobiography, Parks strongly emphasizes: “I would like to be known as a person who is concerned about freedom and equality and justice and prosperity for all people.”
Many of her early memories are laced with trepidation: listening to nearby lynchings by the Ku Klux Klan, fearful that her house too, might be ravaged and burned to the ground. Her birthplace, Tuskegee, at the time enjoyed an illustrious place in African American history as the home of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute but would later become infamous for the 40-year government-sponsored experiments that left poor black men with syphilis untreated so the progress of their symptoms could be recorded.
This graceful, soft-spoken granddaughter of slaves grew up to commit an act of defiance of such magnitude that the law and America were changed forever. Parks “sat down” for justice and equality.
Parks’ message remains as poignant today as it did nearly 50 years ago: “People need to free their minds of racial prejudice and believe in equality for all and freedom regardless of race,” she said.
Raised by a Single Mother
When Parks was just 2 and her brother, Sylvester was an infant, their father, James, headed North and was rarely heard from thereafter. With their mother, a teacher, they moved to tiny Pine Level, Ala., to live on her grandparents’ farm. Surrounded by her extended family, Parks matured with a profound sense of fairness and dignity. Deeply ingrained in her were the lessons of her mother, Leona.
“My mother taught me self-respect,” Parks later recalled. “There’s no law that says people have to suffer.”
Learning to love to read at an early age, Parks attended a black-only, one-room, one-teacher schoolhouse for the five months a year it was open. The rest of the time was dedicated to farming and chores.
Parks’ family moved to Montgomery when she was 11. Her education was put on hold five years later so that she could take care of her dying grandmother, Rose, and then later, her mother.
At 19, Parks met and soon married a skilled and handsome barber, Raymond Parks. He was 10 years her senior and a passionate civil rights activist. In her first autobiography, “Rosa Parks: My Story,” she recalled what had impressed her the most. “He didn’t seem to have that meek attitude–what we called an ‘Uncle Tom’ attitude–toward white people.” Articulate and bold, with little formal education, it was he who encouraged her to complete her high school education at age 21.
“Mother of the Civil Rights Movement”
The couple’s lives were constrained daily by “Jim Crow” laws that enforced segregated elevators, buses, water fountains, restaurants and housing–all made legal by a set of Supreme Court decisions in the late 1800s that remained valid for 70 years.
One of the first women in the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Parks was elected secretary in the early 1940s, and diligently worked to change the subjective and unfair “literacy tests,” which prevented most blacks from voting.
On Dec. 1, 1955, when 42-year-old Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on the Cleveland Avenue bus after a long days work as a seamstress, she was painfully reminded of an experience with the same driver, 12 years earlier. That event had ended with her humiliating eviction from the bus. This time, she recalled, “God sat with me as I remained calm and determined not to be treated with less dignity than any other citizen of Montgomery.”
She was summarily arrested and then released on bail. As the news spread throughout the African American community, a movement to organize a boycott of the municipal bus system quickly began. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., then a 26-year-old unknown, added his resonant voice to the bus boycott already being organized for Dec. 5, Parks’ day in court. As expected, she was convicted for her act of rebelliousness. Her fine: $14. The black community joined and untold thousands of African Americans walked, carpooled, took taxis, rode mules and even missed work and school, leaving the city buses to run nearly empty.
Both Parks’ faith–and the boycott–endured, the latter for 381 days. In late 1956 the Supreme Court ruled that Montgomery’s transportation segregation laws were unconstitutional.
Rosa and her husband continued to pay a price, however. The threats and constant harassing phone calls the Parks received during the boycott played a role in her husband’s nervous breakdown. In 1957, along with her mother, they left for Detroit, seeking work and safety from the continuing death threats.
Rosa Parks’ case laid the legal foundation for the disintegration of institutionalized segregation in the South and her civil disobedience served as a catalyst for a new era in the U.S. civil rights movement.
A Life of Public Service
Relocated in Detroit, Parks served for 23 years as an assistant to Congressman John Conyers, Jr. of Michigan. One of her many important contributions as a staff member was helping Detroit’s homeless find housing.
Parks’ husband of 45 years died in 1977. In February 1987, in his honor, Parks co-founded a mentoring organization for teen-agers along with Elaine Eason Steele, a woman Parks called the “daughter she never had.” The Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, and its Pathways to Freedom program for young people ages 11 to 18, is dedicated to assisting youths achieve their highest potential. A fund-raising event is scheduled for Feb. 14 at the Detroit Opera House.
She continues to stand for her beliefs in equity, justice and mercy. In 1994, after being beaten in her own home by an unemployed black youth who robbed her of $53, she responded, “I pray for this young man and the conditions in our country that have made him this way.”
One Rosa Parks honor has this slight tinge of irony: The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that the state of Missouri cannot discriminate against the Ku Klux Klan when it comes to groups that want to participate in the adopt-a-highway program, and the Department of Transportation had no right to remove the Ku Klux Klan’s adopt-a-highway sign.
In response, Missouri then named the same section of the road the “Rosa Parks Highway.” When learning of the honor, Parks only comment was: “It is always nice to be thought of.”
Ilena Rosenthal is the director of the Humantics Foundation.
For more information:
Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development http://www.rosaparks.org
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People:
Academy of Achievement–Rosa Parks, Pioneer of Civil Rightshttp://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/par0bio-1