Civil rights activism
Events leading up to boycott
In 1944, athletic star Jackie Robinson took a similar stand in a
confrontation with an Army officer in Fort Hood, Texas, refusing to move to the
back of a bus. Robinson was brought before a court-martial, which acquitted him.
The NAACP had accepted and litigated other cases before, such as that of Irene
Morgan ten years earlier, which resulted in a victory in the U.S. Supreme Court
on Commerce Clause grounds. That victory, however, overturned state segregation
laws only insofar as they applied to travel in interstate commerce, such as
interstate bus travel. Black activists had begun to build a case around the
arrest of a 15-year-old girl, Claudette Colvin, a student at Booker T.
Washington High School in Montgomery. On March 2, 1955, Colvin was handcuffed,
arrested and forcibly removed from a public bus when she refused to give up her
seat to a white man. She claimed that her constitutional rights were being
violated. At the time, Colvin was active in the NAACP's Youth Council, a group
to which Rosa Parks served as Advisor.
Colvin recollected, "Mrs. Parks said, 'do what is right.'" Parks was raising
money for Colvin's defense, but when E.D. Nixon learned that Colvin was
pregnant, it was decided that Colvin was an unsuitable symbol for their cause.
Soon after her arrest she had conceived a child with a much older married man, a
moral transgression that scandalized the deeply religious black community.
Strategists believed that the segregationist white press would use Colvin's
pregnancy to undermine any boycott. The NAACP also had considered, but rejected,
earlier protesters deemed unable or unsuitable to withstand the pressures of
cross-examination in a legal challenge to racial segregation laws. Colvin was
also known to engage in verbal outbursts and cursing. Many of the legal charges
against Colvin were dropped. A boycott and legal case never materialized from
the Colvin case law, and legal strategists continued to seek a complainant
In Montgomery, Alabama, the first four rows of bus seats were reserved for
white people. Buses had "colored" sections for black people—who made up more
than 75 % of the bus system's riders—generally in the rear of the bus. These
sections were not fixed in size, but were determined by the placement of a
movable sign. Black people also could sit in the middle rows, until the white
section was full. Then they had to move to seats in the rear, stand, or, if
there was no room, leave the bus. Black people were not allowed to sit across
the aisle from white people. The driver also could move the "colored" section
sign, or remove it altogether. If white people were already sitting in the
front, black people could board to pay the fare, but then had to disembark and
reenter through the rear door. There were times when the bus departed before the
black customers who had paid made it to the back entrance.
For years, the black community had complained that the situation was unfair,
and Parks was no exception: "My resisting being mistreated on the bus did not
begin with that particular arrest…I did a lot of walking in Montgomery." Parks
had her first run-in on the public bus on a rainy day in 1943, when the bus
driver, James Blake, demanded that she get off the bus and reenter through the
back door. As she began to exit by the front door, she dropped her purse. Parks
sat down for a moment in a seat for white passengers, apparently to pick up her
purse. The bus driver was enraged and barely let her step off the bus before
speeding off. Rosa walked more than five miles home in the rain.
|The No. 2857 (GM serial number 1132, coach ID #2857) bus,
which Rosa Parks was riding on before she was arrested, is now a museum exhibit
at the Henry Ford Museum.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
After a day at work at Montgomery Fair department store, Parks boarded the
Cleveland Avenue bus at around 6 p.m., Thursday, December 1, 1955, in downtown
Montgomery. She paid her fare and sat in an empty seat in the first row of back
seats reserved for blacks in the "colored" section, which was near the middle of
the bus and directly behind the ten seats reserved for white passengers.
Initially, she had not noticed that the bus driver was the same man, James F.
Blake, who had left her in the rain in 1943. As the bus traveled along its
regular route, all of the white-only seats in the bus filled up. The bus reached
the third stop in front of the Empire Theater, and several white passengers
In 1900, Montgomery had passed a city ordinance for the purpose of
segregating passengers by race. Conductors were given the power to assign seats
to accomplish that purpose; however, no passengers would be required to move or
give up their seat and stand if the bus was crowded and no other seats were
available. Over time and by custom, however, Montgomery bus drivers had adopted
the practice of requiring black riders to move whenever there were no white only
So, following standard practice, bus driver Blake noted that the front of the
bus was filled with white passengers and there were two or three men standing,
and thus moved the "colored" section sign behind Parks and demanded that four
black people give up their seats in the middle section so that the white
passengers could sit. Years later, in recalling the events of the day, Parks
said, "When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and
ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a
quilt on a winter night."
By Parks' account, Blake said, "Y'all better make it light on yourselves and
let me have those seats." Three of
them complied. Parks said, "The driver wanted us to stand up, the four of us. We
didn't move at the beginning, but he says, 'Let me have these seats.' And the
other three people moved, but I didn't."
The black man sitting next to her gave up his seat. Parks moved, but toward the
window seat; she did not get up to move to the newly repositioned colored
section. Blake then said, "Why don't
you stand up?" Parks responded, "I don't think I should have to stand up." Blake
called the police to arrest Parks. When recalling the incident for Eyes on
the Prize, a 1987 public television series on the Civil Rights Movement,
Parks said, "When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up,
and I said, 'No, I'm not.' And he said, 'Well, if you don't stand up, I'm going
to have to call the police and have you arrested.' I said, 'You may do that.'"
During a 1956 radio interview with Sydney Rogers in West Oakland several
months after her arrest, when asked why she had decided not to vacate her bus
seat, Parks said, "I would have to know for once and for all what rights I had
as a human being and a citizen of Montgomery, Alabama."
She also detailed her motivation in her autobiography, My Story
"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. I was not old, although some people have an image of
me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of
When Parks refused to give up her seat, a police officer arrested
her. As the officer took her away, she recalled that she asked, "Why do you push
us around?" The officer's response as she remembered it was, "I don't know, but
the law's the law, and you're under arrest." She later said, "I only knew that,
as I was being arrested, that it was the very last time that I would ever ride
in humiliation of this kind."
Parks was charged with a violation of Chapter 6, Section 11 segregation law
of the Montgomery City code, even though she technically had not taken up a
white-only seat—she had been in a colored section. E.D. Nixon and Clifford Durr
bailed Parks out of jail the evening of December 1.
That evening, Nixon conferred with Alabama State College professor Jo Ann
Robinson about Parks' case. Robinson, a member of the Women's Political Council
(WPC), stayed up all night mimeographing over 35,000 handbills announcing a bus
boycott. The Women's Political Council was the first group to officially endorse
On Sunday, December 4, 1955, plans for the Montgomery Bus Boycott were
announced at black churches in the area, and a front-page article in The
Montgomery Advertiser helped spread the word. At a church rally that night,
attendees unanimously agreed to continue the boycott until they were treated
with the level of courtesy they expected, until black drivers were hired, and
until seating in the middle of the bus was handled on a first-come basis.
Four days later, Parks was tried on charges of disorderly conduct and
violating a local ordinance. The trial lasted 30 minutes. Parks was found guilty
and fined $10, plus $4 in court costs.
Parks appealed her conviction and formally challenged the legality of racial
segregation. In a 1992 interview with National Public Radio's Lynn Neary, Parks
"I did not want to be mistreated, I did not want to be deprived of a seat that I
had paid for. It was just time... there was opportunity for me to take a stand
to express the way I felt about being treated in that manner. I had not planned
to get arrested. I had plenty to do without having to end up in jail. But when I
had to face that decision, I didn't hesitate to do so because I felt that we had
endured that too long. The more we gave in, the more we complied with that kind
of treatment, the more oppressive it became."
On Monday, December 5, 1955,
after the success of the one-day boycott, a group of 16 to 18 people gathered at
the Mt. Zion AME Zion Church to discuss boycott strategies. The group agreed
that a new organization was needed to lead the boycott effort if it were to
continue. Rev. Ralph David Abernathy suggested the name "Montgomery Improvement
Association" (MIA). The name was adopted, and the MIA was formed. Its members
elected as their president a relative newcomer to Montgomery, a young and mostly
unknown minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
That Monday night, 50 leaders of the African American community gathered to
discuss the proper actions to be taken in response to Parks' arrest. E.D. Nixon
said, "My God, look what segregation has put in my hands!" Parks was the ideal
plaintiff for a test case against city and state segregation laws. While the
15-year-old Claudette Colvin, unwed and pregnant, had been deemed unacceptable
to be the center of a civil rights mobilization, King stated that, "Mrs. Parks,
on the other hand, was regarded as one of the finest citizens of Montgomery—not
one of the finest Negro citizens, but one of the finest citizens of Montgomery."
Parks was securely married and employed, possessed a quiet and dignified
demeanor, and was politically savvy.
The day of Parks' trial—Monday, December 5, 1955—the WPC distributed the
35,000 leaflets. The handbill read, "We are…asking every Negro to stay off the
buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial…. You can afford to stay out of
school for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and
grown-ups, don't ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off the buses
It rained that day, but the black community persevered in their boycott. Some
rode in carpools, while others traveled in black-operated cabs that charged the
same fare as the bus, 10 cents. Most of the remainder of the 40,000 black
commuters walked, some as far as 20 miles. In the end, the boycott lasted for
382 days. Dozens of public buses stood idle for months, severely damaging the
bus transit company's finances, until the law requiring segregation on public
buses was lifted.
Some segregationists retaliated with terrorism. Black churches were burned or
dynamited. Martin Luther King's home was bombed in the early morning hours of
January 30, 1956, and E.D. Nixon's home was also attacked. However, the black
community's bus boycott marked one of the largest and most successful mass
movements against racial segregation. It sparked many other protests, and it
catapulted King to the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement.
Through her role in sparking the boycott, Rosa Parks played an important part
in internationalizing the awareness of the plight of African Americans and the
civil rights struggle. King wrote in his 1958 book Stride Toward Freedom
that Parks' arrest was the precipitating factor, rather than the cause, of the
protest: "The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices…. Actually, no
one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually
the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, 'I can take
it no longer.'"
The Montgomery bus boycott was also the inspiration for the bus boycott in
the township of Alexandria, Eastern Cape of South Africa which was one of the
key events in the radicalization of the black majority of that country under the
leadership of the African National Congress.
Browder v. Gayle
Immediately after the initiation of the bus boycott, legal strategists began
to discuss the need for a federal lawsuit to challenge city and state bus
segregation laws, and approximately two months after the boycott began, they
reconsidered Claudette Colvin's case. Attorneys Fred Gray, E.D. Nixon and
Clifford Durr (a white lawyer who, with his wife, Virginia, was an activist in
the Civil Rights Movement and a former employer of Parks) searched for the ideal
case law to challenge the constitutional legitimacy of city and state bus
segregation laws. Parks' case was not used as the basis for the federal lawsuit
because, as a criminal case, it would have had to make its way through the state
criminal appeals process before a federal appeal could have been filed. City and
state officials could have delayed a final rendering for years. Furthermore,
attorney Durr believed it possible that the outcome would merely have been the
vacating of Parks' conviction, with no changes in segregation laws.
Gray researched for a better lawsuit, consulting with NAACP legal counsels
Robert Carter and Thurgood Marshall, who would later become U.S. Solicitor
General and a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Gray approached Aurelia Browder, Susie
McDonald, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith, all women who had had disputes
involving the Montgomery bus system the previous year. They all agreed to become
plaintiffs in a civil action law suit. Browder was a Montgomery housewife, Gayle
the mayor of Montgomery. On February 1, 1956, the case of Browder v. Gayle
was filed in U.S. District Court by Fred Gray. It was Browder v. Gayle
that brought segregation to an end on public buses.
On June 19, 1956, the U.S. District Court's three-judge panel ruled that
Section 301 (31a, 31b and 31c) of Title 48, Code of Alabama, 1940, as amended,
and Sections 10 and 11 of Chapter 6 of the Code of the City of Montgomery, 1952,
"deny and deprive plaintiffs and other Negro citizens similarly situated of the
equal protection of the laws and due process of law secured by the Fourteenth
Amendment" (Browder v. Gayle, 1956). The court essentially decided that
the precedent of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) could be applied to
Browder v. Gayle. On November 13, 1956, the United States Supreme Court
outlawed racial segregation on buses, deeming it unconstitutional. The court
order arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 20, 1956, and the bus boycott
ended the next day. However, more violence erupted following the court order, as
snipers fired into buses and into King's home, and terrorists threw bombs into
churches and into the homes of many church ministers, including Martin Luther
King Jr.'s friend Ralph Abernathy.
After her arrest, Parks became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, but
suffered hardships as a result. She lost her job at the department store, and
her husband quit his job after his boss forbade him from talking about his wife
or the legal case. Parks traveled and spoke extensively. In 1957, Raymond and
Rosa Parks left Montgomery for Hampton, Virginia—mostly because she was unable
to find work, but also because of disagreements with King and other leaders of
Montgomery's struggling civil rights movement. In Hampton, she found a job as a
hostess in an inn at black Hampton Institute. Later that year, after the urging
of her younger brother Sylvester Parks, her husband Raymond, and her mother
Leona McCauley, moved to Detroit, Michigan.
Parks worked as a seamstress until 1965 when African-American U.S.
Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan) hired her as a secretary and
receptionist for his congressional office in Detroit. She held this position
until she retired in 1988.
In a telephone interview with CNN on October 24, 2005, Conyers recalled, "You
treated her with deference because she was so quiet, so serene—just a very
special person…. There is only one Rosa Parks." Later in life, Parks also served
as a member of the Board of Advocates of the Planned Parenthood Federation of
Rosa Parks and Elaine Eason Steele co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks
Institute for Self Development in February 1987, in honor of Rosa's husband, who
died from cancer in 1977. The institute runs the "Pathways to Freedom" bus
tours, which introduce young people to important civil rights and Underground
Railroad sites throughout the country. On a 1997 trip, the Pathways to Freedom
bus drove into a river, resulting in the death of Adisa Foluke. Foluke, who was
referred to as Parks' adopted grandson, also had been a chaperon on the bus.
Several others were injured.
In 1992, Parks published Rosa Parks: My Story, an autobiography aimed
at younger readers which details her life leading up to her decision not to give
up her seat. In 1995, she published her memoirs, titled Quiet Strength,
which focuses on the role that her faith had played in her life.
On August 30, 1994, Joseph Skipper, an African-American drug addict, attacked
the then 81-year-old Parks in her home. The incident sparked outrage throughout
America. After his arrest, Skipper said that he had not known he was in Parks'
home, but recognized her after entering. Skipper asked, "Hey, aren't you Rosa
Parks?" to which she replied, "Yes." She handed him $3 when he demanded money,
and an additional $50 when he demanded more. Before fleeing, Skipper struck
Parks in the face. Skipper was
arrested and charged with various breaking and entering offenses against Parks
and other neighborhood victims. He admitted guilt and, on August 8, 1995, was
sentenced to eight to 15 years in prison.
A comedic scene in the 2002 film Barbershop featured a cantankerous
barber, played by Cedric the Entertainer, arguing with co-workers and shop
patrons that other African Americans before Parks had resisted giving up their
seats in defiance of Jim Crow laws, and that she had received undeserved fame
because of her status as an NAACP secretary. Activists Jesse Jackson and Al
Sharpton launched a boycott against the film, contending it was "disrespectful",
but then-NAACP president Kweisi Mfume stated he thought the controversy was
"overblown." The scene also
offended Parks, who boycotted the NAACP 2003 Image Awards ceremony, which Cedric
hosted. "Barbershop" received nominations in four awards categories that,
including a "Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture" nomination for Cedric.
He did not win in that category, however, but won an award for his work as a
supporting actor in the television series The Proud Family.
In March 1999, a lawsuit was filed on Parks' behalf against American hip-hop
duo OutKast and LaFace Records, claiming that the group had illegally used Rosa
Parks' name without her permission for the song "Rosa Parks", the most
successful radio single of OutKast's 1998 album Aquemini. The song's
chorus, which Parks' legal defense felt was disrespectful to Parks, is as
follows: "Ah ha, hush that fuss / Everybody move to the back of the bus / Do you
want to bump and slump with us / We the type of people make the club get crunk."
The case was dismissed in November 1999 by US District Court Judge Barbara
Hackett. In August 2000, Parks hired attorney Johnnie Cochran to help her appeal
the district court's decision. Cochran argued that the song did not have First
Amendment protection because, although its title carried Parks' name, its lyrics
were not about her. However, U.S. District Judge Barbara Hackett upheld
OutKast's right to use Parks' name in November 1999, and Parks took the case to
the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where some charges were remanded for
Parks' attorneys and caretaker, Elaine Steele, refiled in August 2004, and
named BMG, Arista Records and LaFace Records as the defendants, along with
several parties not directly connected to the songs, including Barnes & Noble
and Borders Group for selling the songs, and Gregory Dark and Braddon Mendelson,
the director and producer, respectively, of the 1998 music video, asking for $5
billion in damages.
In October 2004, U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh appointed Dennis
Archer, a former mayor of Detroit and Michigan Supreme Court justice, as
guardian of legal matters for Parks after her family expressed concerns that her
caretakers and her lawyer was pursuing the case based on their own financial
interest. "My auntie would never,
ever go to this length to hurt some young artists trying to make it in the
world," Parks' niece Rhea McCauley said in an Associated Press interview. "As a
family, our fear is that during her last days Auntie Rosa will be surrounded by
strangers trying to make money off of her name."
The lawsuit was settled April 15, 2005. In the settlement agreement, OutKast
and their producer and recorded labels paid Parks an undisclosed cash settlement
and agreed to work with the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self
Development in creating educational programs about the life of Rosa Parks. The
record labels and OutKast admitted to no wrongdoing. It is not known whether
Parks' legal fees were paid for from her settlement money or by the record
Death and funeral
Rosa Parks resided in Detroit until she died at the age of 92 on October 24,
2005, at about 19:00 EDT, in her apartment on the east side of the city. She had
been diagnosed with progressive dementia in 2004.
City officials in Montgomery and Detroit announced on October 27 that the
front seats of their city buses would be reserved with black ribbons in honor of
Parks until her funeral. Parks' coffin was flown to Montgomery, Alabama and
taken in a horse-drawn hearse to the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal (AME)
church, where she lay in repose at the altar, dressed in the uniform of a church
deaconess, on October 29. A memorial service was held there the following
morning, and one of the speakers, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said that
if it had not been for Rosa Parks, she would probably have never become the
Secretary of State. In the evening the casket was transported to Washington,
D.C. and taken, aboard a bus similar to the one in which she made her protest,
to lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda (making her the first woman and
second African American ever to receive this honor). An estimated 50,000 people
viewed the casket there, and the event was broadcast on television on October
31. This was followed by another memorial service at a different St. Paul AME
church in Washington on the afternoon of October 31. For two days, she lay in
repose at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit,
Parks' funeral service, seven hours long, was held on Wednesday, November 2,
at the Greater Grace Temple Church. After the funeral service, an honor guard
from the Michigan National Guard laid the U.S. flag over the casket and carried
it to a horse-drawn hearse, which had been intended to carry it, in daylight, to
the cemetery. As the hearse passed the thousands of people who had turned out to
view the procession, many clapped and released white balloons. Rosa was interred
between her husband and mother at Detroit's Woodlawn Cemetery in the chapel's
mausoleum. (The chapel was renamed the Rosa L. Parks Freedom Chapel just after
her death.) Parks had previously
prepared and placed a headstone on the selected location with the inscription
"Rosa L. Parks, wife, 1913–".
Awards and honors
Parks received most of her national accolades very late in life, with
relatively few awards and honors being given to her until many decades after the
Montgomery Bus Boycott. In 1979, the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People awarded Parks the Spingarn Medal, its highest honor, and she
received the Martin Luther King Jr. Award the next year. She was inducted into
the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 1983 for her achievements in civil rights.
In 1990, she was called at the last moment to be part of the group welcoming
Nelson Mandela, who had just been released from his imprisonment in South
Africa. Upon spotting her in the reception line, Mandela called out her name
and, hugging her, said, "You sustained me while I was in prison all those
Parks received the Rosa Parks Peace Prize in 1994 in Stockholm, Sweden. On
September 9, 1996, President Bill Clinton presented Parks with the Presidential
Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given by the U.S. executive branch. In 1998,
she became the first recipient of the International Freedom Conductor Award
given by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. The next year, Parks
was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award given by the U.S.
legislative branch and also received the Detroit-Windsor International Freedom
Festival Freedom Award. Parks was a guest of President Bill Clinton during his
1999 State of the Union Address. Also that year, Time magazine named
Parks one of the 20 most influential and iconic figures of the twentieth
century. In 2000, her home state
awarded her the Alabama Academy of Honor, as well as the first Governor's Medal
of Honor for Extraordinary Courage. She was also awarded two dozen honorary
doctorates from universities worldwide, and was made an honorary member of the
Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
The Rosa Parks Library and Museum on the campus of Troy University in
Montgomery, Alabama, was dedicated to her on December 1, 2000. It is located on
the corner where Parks boarded the famed bus. The most popular items in the
museum are the interactive bus arrest of Mrs. Parks and a sculpture of Parks
sitting on a bus bench. The documentary "Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks"
received a 2002 nomination for Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject. She
also collaborated that year in a TV movie of her life starring Angela Bassett.
The United States Senate passed a resolution on October 27, 2005 to honor
Parks by allowing her body to lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. The
House of Representatives approved the resolution on October 28. Since the
founding of the practice of lying in state in the Rotunda in 1852, Parks was the
31st person, the first woman, the first American who had not been a U.S.
government official, and the second non-government official (after Frenchman
Pierre L'Enfant). She was also the second black person to lie in honor, after
Jacob Chestnut, one of the two United States Capitol Police officers who were
fatally shot by Russell Eugene Weston Jr. on July 24, 1998. Former President
Gerald Ford was the last person to lie in state in the Rotunda, in 2007.
On October 30, President George W. Bush issued a Proclamation ordering that
all flags on US public areas both within the country and abroad be flown at
half-staff on the day of Parks' funeral.
Metro Transit in King County, Washington placed stickers
dedicating the first forward-facing seat of all its buses in Parks' memory
shortly after her death, and the American Public Transportation Association
declared December 1, 2005, the 50th anniversary of her arrest, to be a "National
Transit Tribute to Rosa Parks Day".
On that anniversary, President George W. Bush signed H. R. 4145, directing that
a statue of Parks be placed in the United States Capitol's National Statuary
Hall. In signing the resolution directing the Joint Commission on the Library to
do so, the President stated:
"By placing her statue in the heart of the nation's Capitol, we commemorate
her work for a more perfect union, and we commit ourselves to continue to
struggle for justice for every American."
On February 5, 2006, at
Super Bowl XL, played at Detroit's Ford Field, the late Coretta Scott King and
Parks, who had been a long-time resident of "The Motor City", were remembered
and honoured by a moment of silence. It was noted that the honour was to show
respect for two women who had "helped make the nation as a whole great." This
Super Bowl was dedicated to their memory.
In the Los Angeles County MetroRail system, the Imperial/Wilmington station,
where the Blue Line connects with the Green Line, has been officially named the
"Rosa Parks Station."