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Profiles in Greatness: Sitting Down to Take a Stand

Known as the “mother of the modern-day civil rights movement,” Rosa Parks was influenced by her family members’ strength, faith in God and belief in racial equality. Born Rosa Louise McCauley on Feb. 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Ala., Parks eventually set in motion the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the largest and most successful nonviolent protests in history.

“As a child, I learned from the Bible to trust in God and not be afraid.”

When Rosa was just a toddler, her parents separated and she and her mother moved to Pine Level, Ala., to live with her grandparents, Sylvester and Rose Edwards. The Edwards were former slaves and strong advocates for civil rights, which made them targets of the local Ku Klux Klan. Parks recalled nights when the KKK would march down the street outside the family’s house. “My grandfather never seemed afraid,” Parks wrote in her book Quiet Strength: The Faith, the Hope, and the Heart of a Woman Who Changed a Nation. “At night he would sit with his shotgun and say that he did not know how long he would last, but if they came breaking in our home, he was going to get the first one who came through the door. He never looked for trouble, but he believed in defending his home.” Parks’ personal experience of racism, along with the tenacity she learned from her grandparents, began to set the stage for Parks’ future activism in the civil rights movement.

“Long ago I set my mind to be a free person and not to give in to fear. I always felt that it was my right to defend myself if I could.”

Though Parks intended to complete her education at the Alabama State Teachers College’s high school, in 1929 she left to care for her dying grandmother and her ill mother, finding work at a Montgomery shirt factory. Three years later, she married a young barber, Raymond Parks. Though he had little formal education himself, Raymond encouraged Rosa to complete her schooling, and in 1933, she earned her high school diploma.

Raymond and Rosa Parks shared a passion for civil rights. Raymond was an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and before their marriage, Rosa was an activist in the fight to free the “Scottsboro Boys,” a group of young black males accused of gang-raping two white females—a landmark set of legal cases dealing with race and the right to a fair trial. Rosa also became very involved in the local Montgomery NAACP chapter in 1943, and in addition to contributing as a youth leader, she served as the secretary to the president until 1957.

“After so many years of oppression and being victim of the mistreatment that my people had suffered, not giving up my seat—and whatever I had to face after not giving up my seat—was not important.”

At that time, the Montgomery city code segregated public transportation and gave police officers and bus drivers equal authority to enforce the code. If the bus became crowded and more whites boarded, the code gave the driver authority to increase the designated white seating and offer less room to black passengers. If a bus driver asked a black passenger to give up his seat and the black passenger refused, the driver could call the police and have him removed.

On Dec. 1, 1955, after a long day of working at the Montgomery Fair department store, Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus to return home. She found a seat in the first couple rows designated for “colored passengers.” As the route continued, the bus started to fill. The driver noticed white passengers standing while black passengers sat comfortably. The driver increased the designated white seating, asking four black passengers to relinquish their seats. Three of the black passengers stood, but Parks didn’t move. She remained seated and defended herself calmly as her grandfather had taught her. The driver called the police, who arrested Parks. She was released on bail later that night. On Dec. 5, Parks was found guilty and fined $10 plus a $4 court fee.

“It was time for someone to stand up—or in my case, sit down. I refused to move.”

Rumors circulated that Parks’ actions were staged by the NAACP, which chose Parks to carry out the task because of her position as a black professional and a woman of good character. Whether the event happened as Parks said or was staged, her courage and determination to keep her seat captured the attention of the nation and inspired a movement. A group of black community leaders organized the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) on Dec. 5, 1955. The group appointed the town’s new Baptist minister, Martin Luther King Jr., as their spokesperson. The MIA then organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted 381 days, crippling the public transit system.

An estimated 40,000 black workers, commuting as far as 20 miles each day, refused to ride city buses, and dozens of Montgomery buses sat empty for months. After much white resistance, including the burning of black homes and churches, the boycott led to the desegregation of Alabama’s public transportation system and introduced the world to King, who continually spoke of peace through nonviolence.

Parks’ bravery paved a smoother path for blacks in Alabama, but unfortunately, left Parks with hardship. As a result of her actions, the Parks lost their jobs and were unable to find work, causing them to leave Montgomery. The couple moved to Detroit, where Parks later worked as a secretary and receptionist in the office of U.S. Rep. John Conyers.

“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.”

In 1987, Parks co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development in honor of her husband, who passed away 10 years earlier. Parks created the organization with friend Elaine Eason Steele to provide programs and learning opportunities for underprivileged youth. The organization’s “Pathway to Freedom” program traced the Underground Railroad by bus and allowed youths to meet and talk with Parks and other national leaders.

Parks received numerous awards and dedications in her lifetime, including 43 honorary doctoral degrees, the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize, the Rosa Parks Peace Prize, and the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor. She was the first recipient of the International Freedom Conductor Award given by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and in September 1996, President Bill Clinton presented Parks with the Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to a civilian.

 In 2004, doctors diagnosed Parks with progressive dementia, and on Oct. 24, 2005, she passed away. Several memorial services honored Parks, and more than 50,000 people viewed her casket at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. President George W. Bush ordered all U.S. flags, nationwide and abroad, to be flown at half-staff in her honor.

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