When Rosa Parks refused to get up, an entire race of people began to stand up for their rights as human beings.
DETROIT — When Rosa Parks refused to get up, an entire race of people began to stand up for their rights as human beings.
It was a simple act that took extraordinary courage in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955. It was a place where black people had no rights white people had to respect. It was a time when racial discrimination was so common, many blacks never questioned it.
At least not out loud.
But then came Rosa Parks.
This mild-mannered black woman refused to give up her seat on a city bus so a white man could sit down.
Jim Crow laws had met their match.
Parks’ refusal infused 50,000 blacks in Montgomery with the will to walk rather than risk daily humiliation on the city’s buses.
This gentle giant, whose quietness belied her toughness, became the catalyst for a movement that broke the back of legalized segregation in the United States, gave rise to the astounding leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and inspired fighters for freedom and justice throughout the world.
Parks, the beloved mother of the civil rights movement, is dead, a family member confirmed late Monday.
But already it’s evident that her spirit lives in hundreds of thousands of people inspired by her unwavering commitment to work for a better world — a commitment that continued even after age and failing health slowed her in the 1990s.
In death as in life, she touched the well known and the little known people of the world.
Parks’ health had been declining since the late 1990s. She had stopped giving interviews by then and rarely appeared in public. When she did, she only smiled or spoke short, barely audible responses.
In one of her last lengthy interviews with the Detroit Free Press in 1995, she spoke of what she would like people to say about her after she passed away.
“I’d like people to say I’m a person who always wanted to be free and wanted it not only for myself; freedom is for all human beings,” she said during an interview from the pastor’s study of St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church, a small congregation she joined upon moving to Detroit in 1957.
While it’s known worldwide that her refusal to give up her bus seat sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, it’s less well known that Parks had a long history of trying to make life better for black people.
It was a desire embedded in her from childhood by her grandfather — her mother’s father with whom she lived when she was growing up. He taught his children and grandchildren not to put up with mistreatment. “It was passed down almost in our genes,” Parks wrote in her 1992 autobiography, “My Story.”
She recalled that when her grandfather was home, he kept a shotgun by his side in case the Ku Klux Klan dropped by.
Of her grandfather, Sylvester Edwards, she wrote: “I remember that sometimes he would call white men by their first names, or their whole names, and not say, ‘Mister.’ How he survived doing all those kinds of things, and being so outspoken, talking that big talk, I don’t know, unless it was because he was so white and so close to being one of them.”
Her grandfather’s father was a white plantation owner; his mother a slave housekeeper and seamstress.
In recent years, Parks relied heavily on a wheelchair and, according to court documents, suffered from dementia.
The dementia was revealed as a result of two lawsuits filed on her behalf against the record company for the hip-hop duo Outkast. The 1999 lawsuit claimed the record label BMG Entertainment violated her publicity and trademark rights for the 1998 song “Rosa Parks,” by using her name without her permission for commercial purposes.
Parks was born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Ala., to James and Leona McCauley. As a toddler she moved with her mother to her grandparents’ home in Pine Level, Ala., a rural community outside of Montgomery, where she was raised.
Her mother was a teacher at a church school in a rural town nearby. Her father was a carpenter who left the family in search of work.
She was raised among a large extended family in Pine Level.
Rosa McCauley attended the school where her mother taught for a few years. She moved to Montgomery at age 11 because there were no schools for blacks beyond sixth grade in the rural towns surrounding Pine Level.
She attended the Montgomery Industrial School. Called simply Miss White’s School, for the cofounder and principal Alice White, it was a highly regarded school started and staffed by white women from the North who were dedicated to educating black girls. The school emphasized domestic sciences such as cooking, sewing, care of the sick, the occupations most open to black women at the time.
Still, the school emphasized the lessons of self-respect and dignity she’d been taught at home. “We were taught to be ambitious and to believe that we could do what we wanted in life,” she said. It was there also that she perfected the sewing skills that would become a source of pride and income for many years.
Johnnie Carr, who still lives in Montgomery, was a longtime friend who met Parks at Miss White’s School.
The nonagenarian said her friend’s decision on the Montgomery bus was meant to be: “It was ordained by God.” For many years, Carr was a leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association, a group formed to end segregation on the buses.
In 1932, Rosa McCauley married Raymond Parks, a barber, who had at least two traits in common with her grandfather. He was so light he could pass for white — which initially made him unattractive to her. But, like her grandfather, he was a fearless and proud black man.
In her autobiography, she said he was the first real activist she had ever met. He was a longtime member of the NAACP at a time when simply being a member of a group working for the advancement of colored people was dangerous. He also worked secretly for the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men pulled off a train, falsely accused and found guilty of raping two white women in 1931.
“He was the first, aside from my grandfather and Mr. Gus Vaughn, who was never actually afraid of white people,” Parks wrote in her autobiography. “So many African Americans felt that you just had to be under Mr. Charlie’s heel — that’s what we called the white man, Mr. Charlie — and couldn’t do anything to cross him. In other words, Parks believed in being a man and expected to be treated as a man.”
Rosa Parks joined her husband in working for the defense of the Scottsboro Boys.
In 1943, she became one of the first women to join Montgomery’s branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She served as its secretary and as youth director for several years.
That same year she made her first attempt to register to vote. Twice her attempts failed. She was told she didn’t pass the literacy test — a test blacks had to pass in order to register.
She was so sure she’d passed, that on her third attempt in 1945, she made a copy of her answers, planning to take some kind of action if she was denied again. But she was informed she passed.
As youth adviser to the NAACP, she helped young people organize protests at the city’s main public library. There were separate libraries for black and white people. The one for blacks had far fewer books.
She organized black youths to go to the main library to ask for service. By Jim Crow rules, blacks could order and pick up books from the library, but they couldn’t browse the stacks or study there.
Despite several attempts, they were unsuccessful in changing the policy.
In the summer of 1955, Parks attended a 10-day workshop on implementing integration at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. A white friend and activist, the late Virginia Durr, recommended her to the program. The integrated school focused on labor relations and race relations.
“One of my greatest pleasures there was enjoying the smell of bacon frying and coffee brewing and knowing that white folks were doing the preparing instead of me,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I was 42 years old, and it was one of the few times in my life up to that point when I did not feel any hostility from white people.”
Her attendance at the school and her activism with the NAACP is what led some people to believe she was planted on that bus that cloudy day on Dec. 1, 1955.
But there is evidence to the contrary. She did not sit in the white section in the front of the bus. She sat in the first row of what was then called the colored section. But the rule was when the white section filled up, blacks had to move back.
Montgomery’s civil rights activists, led by the late E.D. Nixon who was a good friend of Parks, were actively seeking a case to pursue in the courts. Two previous arrests of other women had been considered. The activists didn’t think those women could live up to public scrutiny. Parks’ reputation was sterling.
To pursue a case, the leaders needed someone about whom nothing negative could be said so that nothing could detract from their cause.
Parks denied boarding that bus with that mission in mind. She said that had she been paying closer attention she never would have boarded that particular bus. The driver had put her off the bus 12 years earlier and she always tried to avoid riding his bus. Her offense then: she failed to follow the custom of paying at the front of the bus, getting off and boarding at the rear. She had deposited her money at the front and boarded the bus at the front.
Parks wrote that that time she didn’t go to the back door because the steps there were crowded.
For years it has been erroneously reported that Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955 because she was tired from working all day.
Although it is true that she was heading home from her work as a seamstress in a downtown Montgomery department store, it was not tired feet that made her remain seated on the bus.
“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. … No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Her arrest led to an unprecedented display of black unity in the United States that has not been witnessed since. Black people stayed off Montgomery’s city buses for a year, until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the segregated busing policy was illegal.
They were inspired to stay off the buses at weekly and sometimes twice-weekly church services where their aching souls were soothed by freedom songs, and their aching feet swayed by stirring sermons.
It helped, too, that news coverage attracted worldwide attention, including enough money to finance a separate transportation system made up of a fleet of station wagons assigned to various churches and augmented by black cab drivers, black car owners and whites who either supported their cause or simply needed to get their black help to and from work.
The yearlong boycott stands as the nation’s premier model of nonviolent social resistance.
But the end of the boycott didn’t end the harassment. Parks and her husband lost their jobs, although an official at the department store where she worked said she was terminated because business was down, not because her action sparked the boycott.
In 1957, the couple moved to Detroit because Rosa Parks’ only sibling, the late Sylvester McCauley, who was named for her beloved grandfather, had settled in the city after serving in World War II.
Parks continued her civil rights work, and worked for several years as a seamstress at the Stockton Sewing Co., a small factory in downtown Detroit where she sewed aprons and skirts for 75 cents apiece.
It was during those years that she first met Elaine Steele, who became a friend and confidante. Steele eventually became the director of the Raymond and Rosa Parks Institute for Self-Development, which Parks founded in 1987. Raymond Parks had died 10 years earlier at age 74 following a five-year bout with cancer.
From 1965 until she retired in 1988, Rosa Parks worked as a receptionist and assistant in the Detroit office of U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.
In August 1994, an incident involving Parks attracted worldwide attention again. This time the incident shamed black America, in particular, and the United States, in general.
Parks, then 81 and living alone, was assaulted by a man who broke into her home.
Civic and religious leaders, led by her longtime friend U.S. Appeals Court Judge Damon Keith, arranged for Parks to move into the considerably more secure Riverfront Apartments in downtown Detroit.
She lived there until her death, although she frequently spent the cold months living with friends and family in California.
Numerous universities, organizations and individuals honored Parks, including the NAACP, which bestowed her with its highest award, the Springarn Medal, in 1979. She was also awarded an international peace prize for efforts toward world peace in 1994 — given during her first trip to Europe — and the Medal of Freedom, the highest award the U.S. government can bestow on a civilian, awarded in 1999, by former President Clinton.
Despite her notoriety, Parks remained the humble, modest person she had been since childhood. Even her choice of a church after moving to Detroit — St. Matthew AME Church — reflected that. She could have chosen to join one of Detroit’s large, prestigious congregations, any of which count a long list of the city’s who’s-who among its membership, said the Rev. Eddie Robinson. A close friend of Parks, he was a longtime pastor at St. Matthew. He now serves Community AME in Jackson.
“She’d be a reigning celebrity in that environment,” Robinson said in a 1995 interview. “But she doesn’t want that. She is still the humble, gracious lady she’s always been. I’ll tell you, knowing her has certainly turned me around in terms of my own aspirations about where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. You grow where you’re planted.”
Parks was active in the African Methodist Episcopal denomination since childhood. A chapel at her former church, St. Paul AME in Montgomery, is named for her, as are many streets and schools throughout the United States.
At Detroit’s St. Matthew AME, she was active as a missionary, stewardess and deaconess, the highest position a laywoman can attain in the AME church.
In 2000, the AME denomination made her name an official part of its worldwide rituals. Women are consecrated as deaconess in the name of Parks and other holy women.
Recognition for Parks never ceased:
During her last public appearance on February 14 The Three Mo Tenors and a packed auditorium at the Detroit Opera House sang Happy Birthday to her. Parks, who was wheelchair-bound, did not stay for the duration of the tenors’ concert that doubled as a 90th birthday celebration for her.
Earlier that evening, at a private reception, she was inducted as an honorary member of The Links Inc., an international service group of black women.
Parks’ relatives held a family reunion that coincided with her 90th birthday celebration. She appeared briefly at a banquet at the downtown Marriott to be photographed with family members on Saturday, February 16.
Prior to that her last public appearance was at an 89th birthday celebration and premiere of a CBS made-for-TV movie, called “The Rosa Parks Story.” A bevy of celebrity well-wishers and others attended the world premiere of the movie, including Stevie Wonder who sang a jazzed-up rendition of “Happy Birthday” to her, a version similar to the one he wrote in support of making King’s birthday a national holiday.
Those in attendance at the Detroit Institute of Arts included Angela Bassett, who played Parks in the movie, and Cicely Tyson, who portrayed her mother.
Bassett said she was honored to play Parks, who she said was an incredibly courageous woman, especially given the climate in Alabama at the time of her historic 1955 action.
She also said Parks proves a single person can make a big difference and one doesn’t have to be a person with a big voice to have a big impact.
“If you have a big voice, so be it. But if you do things quietly, so be it. It can be done,” Bassett said. “I think it was a destiny for her life.”
Just months before the movie premiere, metro Detroit celebrated the 46th anniversary of the boycott at a gala reception at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, which now houses the bus on which Parks was arrested.
In 2000, Parks joined dignitaries from around the nation in celebrating the anniversary of the bus boycott with the opening of a library and museum named for her and built on the very site where police arrested her 45 years earlier. The museum features an interactive display about the boycott. Walking through it is like experiencing the boycott from beginning to end. The upper floor of the facility serves as a resource center for Troy State University Montgomery, which built and owns it.
In 1999, Judge Keith helped organize a benefit concert at Orchestra Hall to honor Parks and raise money for the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute. Aretha Franklin sang at the concert and then-Vice President Al Gore presented her with her gold medal.
Keith has called Parks a gentle warrior for justice.
“Mother Parks is special to me personally and to the world,” he said. “She symbolizes what freedom is about and what a difference one person can make.”
When South African freedom icon Nelson Mandela came to Detroit in 1990, the person he was most honored to meet was Parks. When he got off the plane, a line of dignitaries waited to greet him. Mandela simply stood in awe when he saw Parks. “He chanted, ‘Rosa, Rosa, Rosa Parks!’.” recalled Keith, who had escorted her to the airport to meet Mandela.
“He recognized her before he recognized anyone,” Keith said.
Mandela later told Keith that Parks was his inspiration while he was jailed and her example inspired South African freedom fighters.
Mandela called Parks “the David who challenged Goliath” in a 1993 speech at the NAACP convention in Indianapolis.
The best-selling poet and writer Maya Angelou said of her, “Mrs. Parks is for me probably what the Statute of Liberty was for immigrants. She stood for the future, and the better future.”
Angelou recalled the pleasure of having Parks as a guest at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., several years ago.
“She was as tender as a rose and she was as strong as steel.”
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich., said Parks was her role model all her adult life.
Kilpatrick recalled first meeting her in the early 1980s as a state legislator.
“I remember thinking how dare I not do all I can after seeing this little, strong woman who took a stand to make life better for me, for all of us, how dare any of us to shirk from any injustice.”
During the 1995 Free Press interview, Parks spoke of the bus boycott’s enduring legacy.
“I hope it will remind people how we struggled and what we had to go through, and that they’ll be willing to continue to work for our freedom because we still have quite a long way to go,” she said.