Rosa Parks occupies an iconic status in the civil rights movement after she refused to vacate a seat on a bus in favor of a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1955, Parks rejected a bus driver’s order to leave a row of four seats in the “colored” section once the white section had filled up and move to the back of the bus.
Her defiance sparked a successful boycott of buses in Montgomery a few days later. Residents refused to board the city’s buses. Instead they carpooled, rode in Black-owned cabs, or walked, some as far as 20 miles. The boycott dealt a severe blow to the bus company’s profits as dozens of public buses stood idle for months. The boycott was led by a newcomer to Montgomery named Martin Luther King, Jr.
At the time, Parks led the youth division at the Montgomery branch of NAACP. She said her anger over the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till and the failure to bring his killers to justice inspired her to make her historic stand. Four days before the incident, Parks attended a meeting where she learned of the acquittal of Till’s murderers.
In her autobiography, Rosa Parks: My Story (1992), Parks declares her defiance was an intentional act: “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 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
As a result of her defiance, Parks was arrested and found guilty of disorderly conduct. NAACP joined her appeal, a case that languished in the Alabama court system. Segregation on public buses eventually ended in 1956 after a Supreme Court ruling declared it unconstitutional in Browder v. Gayle. Parks was not included as a plaintiff in the decision since her case was still pending in the state court.
“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 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” — Rosa Parks
JOINING THE FIGHT IN DETROIT
In addition to her arrest, Parks lost her job as a seamstress at a local department store. Her husband Raymond lost his job as a barber at a local air force base after his boss forbade him to talk about the legal case. Parks and her husband left Montgomery in 1957 to find work, first traveling to Virginia and later to Detroit, Michigan.
Parks supported the militant Black power movement, whose leaders disagreed with the methods of the nonviolent movement represented by Martin Luther King. Her break with other Montgomery leaders over the future of the civil rights struggle contributed to her departure from the Southern city.
Parks was struck by the similarity in treatment of African Americans in Detroit, finding that schools and housing were just as segregated as they were in the South. She joined the movement for fair housing and lent her support to local candidate John Conyers in his bid for Congress.
After he was elected in 1965, Conyers repaid the favor by employing Parks as his secretary in his Detroit office, a position she held until her retirement in 1988. In the role, Parks worked with constituents on issues such as job discrimination, education, and affordable housing.
Parks remained active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and helped investigate the killing of three Black teenagers in a 1967 race riot in Detroit.
DEATH AND LEGACY
Over the course of her life, Parks received many honors, including NAACP’s Springarn Medal in 1979, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. After Parks died in Detroit in 2005 at the age of 92, she became the first woman to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.
California, Missouri, Ohio, and Oregon commemorate Rosa Parks Day every year, and highways in Missouri, Michigan, and Pennsylvania bear her name.