January 31, 2013 By Jack Jodell
Monday, February 4 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the most iconic members of the American Civil Rights movement: ROSA PARKS. All Americans, regardless of race, should join in heartfelt tribute to her memory, as we have all benefitted immensely from what she accomplished in her life. Having passed away in 2005 at the ripe old age of 92, Rosa did not live to see the election and re-election of our country’s first African-American President, Barack Obama. Yet her courage was definitely instrumental in making that awesome achievement come about! For it was her bravery on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama way back in 1955 which helped spark the Civil Rights movement.
Rosa Parks never had the intention of becoming a world-renowned civil rights activist, but nonetheless that is what she became. Born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama, she was the daughter of a carpenter and a schoolteacher. Her parents separated when she was quite young and she went to live with her mother. They settled on a farm with her maternal grandparents, and there she began her lifelong affiliation in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. At age 11, she enrolled in the Industrial School for Girls in Montgomery, AL, where she studied academic and vocational courses. She went on to a secondary school briefly, but was forced to drop out to care for both her grandmother and later her mother when they became ill.
During her time at the Industrial School, it was twice burned by arsonists, and the white teachers who taught the minority students there were scorned by the white community. Blacks and whites led strictly separated lives there in the old South, with white students receiving the privilege of a bus ride to school but blacks being forced to walk. The Ku Klux Klan was very active at this time, terrorizing negroes in the south and even leading mass marches on Washington, D.C. to display its power. In the mid-1920s, the Klan even controlled most of the Republican-held seats as well as the governorship in the state of Indiana!
Rosa married barber Raymond Parks in 1932, and settled down to a modest existence as a domestic worker and a hospital aide, among other tasks. Her husband also saw to it that she finished her high school studies, which she did the following year. He was a member of the NAACP, and eventually she, too, joined that organization. At that time, very strict Jim Crow laws were in effect which made it extremely difficult for blacks to vote. But Rosa Parks was determined. To her credit, she qualified for voting privileges on only her third try! She soon rose in the NAACP ranks, eventually becoming volunteer secretary to the chapter’s president. She was the only woman in the chapter at that time, and was too timid to turn down the position.
During World War II, Rosa worked briefly at Maxwell Air Force Base, which was federally owned and did not allow segregation. This proved to be a real eye-opener for her, as she soon found herself riding freely on an integrated trolley with white passengers. She worked as a housekeeper and seamstress for a liberal white couple on the base, and they soon took a liking to her. With their encouragement and eventual sponsorship, she was soon enrolled at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. This was a school focusing on worker’s rights and racial equality.
December 1, 1955 proved to be a fateful day in the life of Rosa Parks as well as for the Civil Rights movement. She had obtained employment as a seamstress at a department store in Montgomery and boarded a bus to take her home that day after a long day on the job. She settled into her seat and the bus began to fill up. Rosa and three other blacks were sitting in the very first row of the black, “colored” section of the bus, which was located after several rows of white-only seats located at the very front. As the bus began to fill, the driver came and moved the “colored only” sign several rows back behind Rosa, then told her and the others to leave their seats and move back to make room for more incoming white passengers. The three others complied, but Rosa refused to move. She hadn’t intended to be a rabble-rouser, but after a long day, she was simply “tired of giving in.” Her refusal to comply with the white bus driver’s demand was courageous: it led to her immediate arrest and removal from the bus by police, and ultimately cost her the seamstress job. She was charged with a violation of Chapter 6, section 11 of the Montgomery city code, which provided for segregation on city buses. Then she was put in jail.
Word of this incident spread like wildfire among the black community. An upstanding citizen and longtime NAACP member had been jailed on a segregation charge! Her NAACP President bailed her out of jail the next evening and made a calculated move on how to further proceed. While Rosa Parks was certainly not the first black citizen to be jailed under that statute, she was definitely the most upstanding and prominent. Because of this, NAACP leaders decided to make a stand. Within 3 days of her arrest, 35,000 leaflets had been printed and distributed among the black community, urging them to boycott all Montgomery buses. Rallies were held at black churches that Sunday evening, and the boycott was proclaimed. Until blacks were treated with they respect they deserved, and until more black bus drivers were hired for Montgomery buses, NO black would ride them. Amazingly enough, the black community followed through on the boycott, choosing instead to take taxis or create carpools. Most even walked to their jobs and schools, some for as many as 20 miles!
The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted an incredible 381 days! Many city buses stood idle for months on end, and the company’s finances were definitely affected badly. Eventually, though, success was achieved: segregation on city buses was lifted! Rosa Parks’ actions had led to temporary hardship for the community, but eventually their perseverance had paid off handsomely!
The ensuing years were at times difficult for Rosa. She and her husband had difficulty finding employment at various times, so eventually they moved, along with her mother, and settled in Detroit, MI. Rep. John Conyers ended up hiring her for his local congressional office, and she remained working for him until her retirement in 1988. Conyers recalled in a CNN interview he gave after her death, “You treated her with deference because she was so quiet, so serene – there was only one Rosa Parks”.
Rosa and her family were plagued with illness after an interval. Both she and her husband suffered from stomach ulcers and required hospitalization. She would, at times, speak on behalf of civil rights groups, and often donated her honorarium to the various organizations. The little money she did keep she usually spent on medical expenses for herself and her family. In the late 1970s, she lost her husband, mother, and younger brother all due to different forms of cancer, and all within a short time of each other. It was a very trying time for her.
In 1980, the now-widowed Rosa Parks, without any immediate family left, began fundraising and speaking again. She adopted a vigorous pace of activity, co-founding the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation for college-bound high school seniors, and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, an institute which ran special bus tours to notable civil rights and Underground Railroad sites for young people. As she grew older, increasingly poor health limited her public appearancces, and, when asked once how she was enjoying her life in retirement, she answered, “I do the very best I can to look upon life with optimism and hope and looking forward to a better day, but I don’t think there is any such thing as complete happiness. It pains me that there is still a lot of Klan activity and racism.” She did appear in a cameo role in the TV series Touched By An Angel in 1999. It was her last film appearance.
When Rosa Parks died in 2005, she became the first woman and only the second non-government official to lie in state in the rotunda of the nation’s Capitol building. City officials in both Montgomery and Detroit draped the first two rows of their cities’ buses with black ribbons until her funeral in honor of her memory. At one of many commemorative memorial services held for her, then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice remarked that, had it not been for the actions of Rosa Parks, she herself may have never had the opportunity to become Secretary of State.
As we begin this year’s February Black History Month. let us remember with fondness the courageous Rosa Parks, and keep in mind that her struggles were long and hard, but eventually, she did, in fact, win her fight for civil tights! Happy 100th birthday, Rosa – as a personal heroine of mine, I wish you were still with us. But most importantly, I recognize that your spirit will always survive to teach us all what determination and perseverance for a just cause can achieve! Thank you, Rosa!