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Rosa Parks: Mother of the Civil Rights Movement

One woman’s defiance sparked a political movement

29 December 2008
Museum picture of Parks at front of bus (AP Images)

After the Supreme Court ruled in her favor, Rosa Parks sat at the frontof the bus.

By Kenneth M. Hare

The editorial page director at The Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser, Hare is also the author of They Walked to Freedom 1955–1956: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This article is excerpted from the book Free At Last: The U.S. Civil Rights Movement, published by the Bureau of International Information Programs.

Rosa McCauley Parks is known today as the “mother of the civil rights movement” because her arrest for refusing to give up her bus seat sparked the pivotal Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. She didn’t set out to make history when she left her job as a seamstress to board a bus on the afternoon of December 1, 1955. She was tired, and she just wanted to go home. Still, when the bus driver asked her to move toward the back of the bus so that a white man could sit, she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

“I didn’t get on the bus with the intention of being arrested,” she said later. “I got on the bus with the intention of going home.”

While she did not know her act would set in motion a 381-day bus boycott, she knew one thing. Her own personal bus boycott began that day.

“I knew that as far as I was concerned, I would never ride on a segregated bus again.”

The arrest and brief jailing of Rosa Parks, a woman highly respected in the black community, and the boycott that followed led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation on city buses. The boycott also raised to national prominence a youthful, little-known minister named Martin Luther King Jr. Under his leadership, the boycott set a pattern for nonviolent, community-based protest that became a successful strategy in the civil rights movement.

There were many forces in Rosa Parks’s early life that helped forge her quiet activism. She was born Rosa Louise McCauley on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama. Her childhood revolved around a small church where her uncle was the pastor. There she developed both a strong faith and a sense of racial pride. Parks later in life spoke proudly of the fact that the African Methodist Episcopal Church had for generations been a strong advocate for black equality.

She also was strongly influenced by her grandparents, especially her grandfather. He responded to the family’s fears of the violent, racist, secret society known as the Ku Klux Klan by keeping a loaded double-barreled shotgun nearby. While the very real possibility of Klan violence never materialized for her immediate family, her grandfather’s defiant attitude helped mold her thinking.

When she turned 11, Rosa was sent to a school for girls in Montgomery that had an all-black student body and an all-white teaching staff. At the school, Parks learned “to believe we could do what we wanted in life.” She also learned from the teachers that not all white people were bigots.

It was there she met Johnnie Carr, and the two girls started a friendship that would last a lifetime. Carr said of her friend’s childhood: “I was noisy and talkative, but she was very quiet, and always stayed out of trouble. But whatever she did, she always put herself completely into it. But she was so quiet you would never have believed she would get to the point of being arrested.”

Parks wanted to be a teacher, but had to drop out of school to care for her ailing mother. (She later received her high school diploma.) When she was 18, she fell in love with barber Raymond Parks and they later married. During part of the Second World War, she worked at the racially desegregated Maxwell Field (now Maxwell Air Force Base) in Montgomery. She later attributed her indignation toward the segregated Montgomery transportation system to the contrast with the integrated on-base transportation she had experienced.

After the bus boycott ended successfully in 1956, Parks continued working for civil rights. On several occasions she joined King to support his efforts. The following year, Parks moved north, to Detroit, Michigan, where she worked for Congressmen John Conyers, who often joked that he had more people visit his office to meet his staff assistant than to meet him.

Parks was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. She was presented the Medal of Freedom Award by President Bill Clinton in 1996 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. The Southern Christian Leadership Council established an annual Rosa Parks Freedom Award.

After her death on October 24, 2005, Congress approved a resolution allowing her body to lie in honor in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. She was the 31st person, the first woman, and only the second black person to be accorded that honor since the practice began in 1852.

Rosa Parks was always modest about her role in the civil rights movement, giving credit to a higher power for her decision not to give up her seat. “I was fortunate God provided me with the strength I needed at the precise time conditions were ripe for change. I am thankful to him every day that he gave me the strength not to move.”

Parks holding program with her picture from younger days (AP Images)

Rosa Parks, age 84, displays a program from the dedication of Rosa Parks Elementary School in San Francisco.