Trailblazer: Rosa Parks

Trailblazer: Rosa Parks
 “I have learned over the years that when one's mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.” - Rosa Parks 
By Brooke Lehmann

On October 24th seven years ago, the world of civil rights was in mourning over the loss of the 'mother of the movement', Rosa Parks. A petite, hardworking, civil rights advocate and seamstress, Mrs. Parks dedicated her life to the cause of equality for her fellow African Americans.

As we all know, she became a world renowned name after her defiant act on a local bus in Montgomery, Alabama, which saw her arrested for breaching the local segregation laws. Her case inspired a mass eruption of protest by the black people of Montgomery.

What it inspired was a civil rights revival in the face of racial equality in Alabama that ultimately placed her alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other acclaimed advocates of the Civil Rights movement.

Parks was born Rosa Louise McCauley, on the 4th February 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama to father James McCauley, a carpenter, and mother Leona Parks (née Edwards), a rural schoolteacher. Two years later her younger brother and only sibling, Sylvester, arrived on August 20.

Sadly, at the age of five, Parks' parents separated, and, with her mother and brother, moved to Pine Level Alabama, where she began her education. Rosa recalls school as a child as being a relatively pleasurable affair, saying,

"I liked school when I was very young, in spite of the fact that it was a one-room school for students all ages... It was only a short term for us, five months every year, instead of the regular nine months every year."

From an early age, Parks, like any young African American of the day, was by not immune to the inequality which presented itself constantly in every aspect of life. Once she vividly recalled having to walk to school with the other black children, while white children alone were granted the courtesy of a bus escort. On another occasion, she watched her grandfather (a former slave) stand with a shotgun outside their house as the Ku Klux Klan passed down the street.

It was her courage and conviction of civil rights which brought concern to her grandmother (also a former slave and a strong civil rights advocate), and resulted in a cautious warning: 'You'll be lynched before you turn 20 if you keep standing up to whites'. However, contrastingly, some of her earlier experiences with white people were pleasant, as she remembered fondly in her autobiography, Rosa Parks: My Story, that one Yankee soldier treated her like, '..another little girl, not a little black girl'.

At the age of eleven, Parks' mother enrolled her at the Montgomery Industrial School whose staff consisted of solely of whites. The staff of the school would regularly receive harassment and were ridiculed in the local community for their involvement with black people and their education; twice the school was burnt down by arsonists.

For her high school education, Rosa attended a laboratory school set up by the Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes, but had to leave prior to graduating in order to care for her ailing grandmother, and later, her mother.

In 1932, at the age of 19, Parks married 29-year-old barber Raymond Parks, an avid member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), who zealously raised money for the defence of nine black men involved in the famous rape case known as the Scottsboro Trial (the men were eventually released, however the process took almost 20 years).

It was Raymond who stood by an assiduous Rosa as she continued her education and finally received her high school diploma in 1934. Rosa also became heavily involved in the NAACP as secretary, working alongside the organisation's state president, Edgar Daniel Nixon until 1957.

"I worked on numerous cases with the NAACP, but we did not get the publicity... We didn't seem to have too many successes. It was more a matter of trying to challenge the powers that be, and to let it be known that we did not wish to continue being second-class citizens," Parks recalled.


Infamously, on December 1st 1955, after leaving her seamstress job at Montgomery Fair, a 42-year-old Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on her local bus. The segregation laws of the time demanded that coloured people had their own section of seating and, in addition, were required to pay at the front of the bus, only to exit and re-enter afterward, at the back of the bus.

However, on this day, a defiant Parks refused to relinquish her seat upon request when there were no seats left.

Prior to this incident, Parks was all too familiar with bus driver James F. Blake. In 1943, after boarding the bus to go to register to vote, Parks heedlessly wandered straight down the aisle of the bus to find her seat. Blake ordered Parks to exit and re-enter the proper way but instead Parks exited and waited for the next bus. Suffice it to say, Blake's reception of Parks' impudence, was not received lightly.

"When the driver saw that I was still sitting there, he asked if I was going to stand up. I told him, no, I wasn't. He said, 'Well, if you don't stand up, I'm going to have you arrested.' I told him to go on and have me arrested'," Parks stated in an interview*.

And that's what he did. Parks' was not the first act of such defiance. An article in the local newspaper the Montgomery Advertiser, published on March 10, 1955, proclaimed a similar case involving a 15-year-old 'negro girl' named Claudette Colvin.

The article states: "The girl was allegedly drug kicking and clawing from a city bus last week after bus driver Robert W. Cleere reported to police she had refused to move to the Negro section of his bus."

The NAACP had been scouting for some time for an appropriate test case to bring before the supreme court in order to challenge bus segregation laws. As Colvin was found to be pregnant, the NAACP rendered her case insufficient for fears the pregnancy would spark negative propaganda and mar any chance of a successful outcome.

So when the NAACP were alerted to Parks' case (almost immediately), they explained their proposal, and, despite husband Raymond's fears, Rosa agreed to do what she could – her tolerance for the treatment of black people completely evaporated.

"I was not sitting in the front of the bus, as so many people have said, and neither was my feet hurting, as many people have said". No, Rosa Parks wasn't physically tired any more than after a normal day's work; she was tired of being treated as a second-class citizen.

So sparked a revival of hope and defiance in the African Americans of Montgomery, Alabama. The Women's Political Council (WPC) had the notion of a bus boycott that would last for a day – a protest to coincide with the arrest of Rosa Parks. The WPC distributed thousands of fliers pleading that all African Americans refuse bus services for the day.

The boycott, eventually dubbed the 'Montgomery Bus Boycott', saw tens of thousands of Montgomery African Americans refuse local bus transport, replacing their usual commute with walking or car pooling with the few negro locals who owned their own vehicles.

The boycott, which was planned to last only one day, resulted in a protest for one year and two weeks; one which cost the town dearly, as 75 per cent of Montgomery's bus business comprised of black people.

Coinciding with the boycott was the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association, with their new leader, an unknown pastor by the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., bringing Parks' case before the United States District Court.

Eventually the case was brought before the Supreme Court and on December 20, 1956, the segregation of Montgomery buses was labelled unconstitutional.


After the momentous success of the Supreme Court's decision, persecution of black people became endemic in the south and, according to an article in The LA Times, "Parks' husband was driven to what biographer Brinkley called, “near-suicidal despair”, by the death threats targeting them." As a result, the couple moved to Detroit in 1957, where Parks began working as a seamstress again.

Parks' involvement in civil rights never wavered. She often marched in protests all around the country, even in the 1963 march on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech.

In 1965, Parks began working as a receptionist and case worker in the office of Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich), which she continued until her retirement in 1988. Sadly, in 1977, both her brother Sylvester and her husband Raymond passed away.

Parks described her husband as an inspiration who "believed in freedom and equality and all the things that would improve conditions". She continued his legacy through the co-founding of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, an organisation that focuses on motivating youth to reach their highest potential and by educating them about the movement.

"I see the energy of young people as a real force for change," she wrote in her book, Dear Mrs. Parks: A Dialogue With Today's Youth.

Parks' faith continued to be a stronghold throughout her life. She recalled in another of her books, Quiet Strength, the services she attended every Sunday before supper, and how her grandmother would read the Bible to her, and her grandfather's prayers.

"We even had devotions before going to pick cotton in the fields. Prayer and the Bible became a part of my everyday thoughts and beliefs. I learned to put my trust in God and seek Him as my strength."

Her conviction and faith saw her through the uncertainty and tumultuous struggle of the civil rights campaign in Montgomery in 1955. A deep-rooted sense of morale and creed stemmed the discernment and wisdom she showed through her relatively silent, but bold, proclamation on the bus that day on December 1st.

Describing her strength in the face of arrest, she said, "Since I have always been a strong believer in God, I knew that He was with me, and only He could get me through that next step."

While continuing to seek social justice and serve her country and community, in August 1994, Parks was attacked in her home by a young man who wanted money from her.

"I pray for this young man and the conditions in our country that have made him this way," she wrote at the time. "Despite the violence and crime in our society, we should not let fear overwhelm us. We must remain strong."

Parks has been the recipient of more than 43 honorary degrees, and has garnered hundreds of certificates, awards and plaques, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honour a civilian has received, from President Bill Clinton in 1996. She was also blessed by Pope John Paul II for her contribution to humanity.

"Four decades later I am still uncomfortable with the credit given to me for starting the bus boycott," she once said. "I would like [people] to know I was not the only person involved. I was just one of many who fought for freedom."

Parks' death on October 24, 2005, which was announced by her former office in Detroit, enveloped the world of civil rights with a humble reverence and appreciation for the legacy and revolution that this subversive woman inspired.

But it was Rosa Parks' humble submission to the plight of fellow man that has forever marked the course of history. The morsel of freedom she longed for, the entitlement of every created being, was her driving force. She said, "I want everyone to remember me as a person who wanted to be free."

*Interview with Howell Raines for his book, My Soul is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered (1977).