Yesterday, December 1, was the 60th anniversary of the Rosa Parks bus seat incident. Most of us are familiar with Rosa Parks and the famous incident where she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white person. But, few of us are cognizant of the details of the rest of her life beyond that incident. Who was Rosa Parks? What kind of person was she? What drove her to stand up to the bus driver and the police the way she did? What did she do with the rest of her life? Valid questions. Read on for the answers.
Rosa Louise McCauley was born on February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama. Her father was a carpenter, and her mother was a teacher. They separated when Rosa was very young and she was raised on a near-by farm with her mother and her maternal grandparents. She was primarily of African American ancestry, although one of her great-grandfathers was Caucasian (probably, a slave owner), and one of her great-grandmothers was a slave of Native American descent.
Rosa was raised in the Jim Crow era. Essentially, “Jim Crow” laws were state and local laws that were enacted in the former Confederate states following the end of Reconstruction. They mandated segregation of whites and blacks in all public facilities. The origin of the term “Jim Crow,” was a song and dance routine performed by whites in “blackface” beginning in the 1830s called “Jump Jim Crow.” The routine became very popular, and “Jim Crow” came to symbolize a derogatory term for “Negro.” These laws were finally abolished legally by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Those of us who were not alive before the 1960s or who were raised in the North cannot fully comprehend what segregation was like. “Separate but equal” was really “separate and inferior.” For example, white kids rode school buses to relatively modern, well appointed schools; blacks walked to run-down schools with inferior or obsolete equipment. The races were separated on public buses with blacks required to sit in the back and surrender seats to whites if need be. It was a time of deep racial prejudice and deprivation towards blacks physically, economically and socially. In particular, in later life Rosa recalled that she was beaten and bullied by white children repeatedly. The schools she attended were woefully inferior to those of white children. In addition, she recalled one occasion when the KKK marched right down her street as her grandfather guarded the front door of their house with a shotgun.
Rosa was a feisty child. Often, she fought back against the bullies. Her grandmother often admonished her against “talking ‘biggity’ to white folks.” Once she picked up a brick and was about to throw it at a white child who had been bullying her when her grandmother stopped her. Rosa replied “I would rather be lynched than live to be mistreated and not be allowed to say ‘I don’t like it.'” Yes, Rosa was not the meek, quiet person that she has been portrayed as. She believed in standing up for herself and speaking her mind. This rebellious streak, which surprised some people, came out clearly in her personal papers that were made public after her death.
In 1932 Rosa married Raymond Parks from Montgomery. Parks was a barber, but, more importantly, he was a member of the NAACP and a racial activist for his time. He convinced Rosa to finish high school, which was extremely rare for an African American in those days. Also, she managed to register to vote, which was not so easy to do at that time. In circa 1943 Rosa became active in the nascent civil rights movement. She joined the NAACP and became secretary of the local Montgomery chapter.
The foregoing is the backdrop for the “bus seat incident.” Rosa had worked all day. Yes, she was tired physically, but no more than usually. She worked hard and was tired every day. More importantly, as she later wrote in her autobiography, she was not some old lady as described in some accounts of the incident. She was only 42. She was just tired of being bullied by whites all her life. In plain parlance, she was “fed up.” She had had enough. So, she refused the bus driver’s demands to give up her seat. He called the police who arrested her, and the rest, as they say, is history.
It should be denoted that Parks was not the first person to have refused to surrender her seat to a white person on a bus. There had been a few others over the years, but her action galvanized the black community. Perhaps, she was just the right person at the right time. In any event, following her arrest, leaders in the black community organized a bus boycott, which was very effective. One of the most prominent leaders of the boycott was a young, obscure minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, new to the area named Martin Luther King, Jr. Thus, probably the greatest and most influential black civil rights leader ever first entered the national consciousness during the boycott precipitated by Rosa Parks.
Roughly 40,000 blacks who normally would have ridden the public buses, carpooled, took taxis provided by black-owned companies or simply walked (in some cases, as much as 20 miles or more). The boycott lasted 381 days. Dozens of buses stood idle, which no doubt severely impaired the bus company’s financial situation. Finally, the boycott ended after the US Supreme Court, in a related case, not one involving Parks, ruled that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional.
Following the “bus seat incident” Parks became a civil rights icon, but she was harassed and also suffered economically. Both she and her husband lost their jobs. Later, Parks moved to Detroit where she joined her brother and other relatives. She remained active in civil rights. Some of her later accomplishments:
- She assisted John Conyers, a black, win election to the Congress and became his secretary.
- She remained active in civil rights and women’s causes, particularly those involving rape and sexual assault. Rosa, herself, had almost been raped when she was a youngster.
- She co-founded the “Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation” to aid college-bound high school seniors. She supported the Foundation by donating her speaking fees to it.
- She has been the recipient of countless awards and honors. Many streets, parks and libraries have been named after her.
- There was a television movie of her life starring Angela Bassett.
- The US Treasury is considering putting a woman’s likeness on the $10 bill. Parks is one of the finalists for that honor.
Rosa Parks died of natural causes on October 24, 2005 at the age of 92. In her honor city officials in both Montgomery and Detroit ordered that the front seats of their city buses be covered in black ribbons until her funeral.
Rosa Parks was one of those few persons who truly made a difference. Her legacy will live forever.