Rosa Parks was an African American civil rights activist who is one of the most famous figures of the civil rights movement. Parks became an international icon of resistance to racial segregation after she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Her act of bravery led to the successful Montgomery bus boycott which resulted in segregation in Alabama public buses being declared unconstitutional. Rosa Parks was a religious person and in her 1995 book Quiet Strength, she revealed that her faith gave her the courage for her famous refusal. Parks worked through her life for the rights of African Americans, before and after the boycott. For her role in the African American Civil Rights Movement, she is considered the “the mother of the civil rights movement”. Know more about the life, childhood, family, career and death of Rosa Parks through these 10 interesting facts.

 

#1 She was often sick as a child and suffered from chronic tonsillitis

Rosa Parks was born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama, US, on February 4, 1913. She was named after her maternal grandmother Rose Edwards. Rosa was the first child of James McCauley and his wife Leona Edwards. Her father was a carpenter while her mother was a teacher. Rosa had one younger brother, Sylvester McCauley, born in 1915 and named after his maternal grandfather Sylvester Edwards. In her younger years Rosa was sick often. She had chronic tonsillitis. James and Leona ultimately separated and Leona moved with her children to the farm of her parents in Pine Level, a town adjacent to the state capital Montgomery. Rosa spent rest of her childhood there with her maternal grandparents, mother and younger brother.

Sylvester J. McCauley
Sylvester J. McCauley

 

#2 Rosa Parks had to deal with racism from an early age

Till the age of 11, Rosa attended rural schools in Pine Level. After that she enrolled in Montgomery Industrial School for Girls (Miss White’s School), a private institution. After finishing her education there she joined Alabama State Teacher’s College for secondary education. However, she was unable to graduate from there as the illness of her grandmother, and later her mother, forced her to take care of them. Rosa Parks had early encounters with racism in American society. Once the members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), an extremest organization believing in white supremacy, marched down the street in front of their house and her grandfather had to guard the house with a shotgun. Rosa had to endure the Jim Crow laws of the South, which segregated white people from black people in almost every part of their daily lives. Also, she had to often fight against white children who tried to bully her.

Rosa Parks and her mother
Rosa Parks (right) with her mother Leona Edwards

 

#3 She became involved in civil rights activities through her husband Raymond Parks

On December 18, 1932, Rosa Louise McCauley married Raymond Parks in a small ceremony performed at her mother’s home in Montgomery, Alabama. Raymond was a self educated man who was a barber by profession. He encouraged Rosa to finish her high school education and she successfully got her high school diploma in 1933. Raymond Parks was a member of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the leading African-American civil rights organization of the 20th century. Through her husband Rosa Parks became involved in civil rights activities. Along with Raymond and other black activists, she helped in raising money for the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine African American teenagers falsely accused of raping two White American women on a train in 1931. However, despite medical evidence to suggest that they had not committed the crime, five of the nine defendants were convicted of rape and all but two served prison sentences.

Scottsboro Boys
Scottsboro Boys and Attorney Samuel Leibowitz

 

#4 She worked to get justice for African Americans but was unsuccessful

In 1943, Rosa Parks joined the Montgomery division of NAACP. The same year, she was elected secretary to the local NAACP leader Edgar Nixon. She served in this position for 14 years till 1957. In September 1944, an African American woman named Recy Taylor was brutally gang-raped by six white men. Rosa Parks played a leading role in bringing Recy Taylor’s story to national attention. However, despite the men admitting the rape to authorities, the two all white male juries declined to indict the men. In 2011, the Alabama House of Representatives apologized on behalf of the state “for its failure to prosecute her attackers.” In 1952, Parks labored unsuccessfully to free Jeremiah Reeves, a black teenager sentenced to die for raping a white woman. The NAACP was certain that they had a consensual relationship. Parks later said, It was a tragedy he lost his life. Sometimes it was very difficult to keep going when all our work seemed to be in vain.

Recy Taylor case report
Newspaper report with an image of Recy Taylor

 

#5 Parks famously refused to give up her bus seat leading to the Montgomery bus boycott

In 1900, Montgomery had passed a city ordinance to segregate bus passengers by race. The blacks were generally assigned the back rows; and when the bus was crowded they were usually asked to leave their seats for whites though this was against the law. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a bus and sat in an empty seat in the first row of back seats reserved for blacks. The bus was soon crowded and as some white passengers were standing, the driver James F. Blake ordered blacks to leave their seat for the white passengers. Three black men complied but Rosa Parks refused. Blake then called the police to arrest Parks. Edgar Nixon and her friend Clifford Durr bailed her out of jail that evening. Parks’ resistance to bus segregation led to the Montgomery bus boycott during which African Americans in Montgomery boycotted the bus service of the city. This was the first large-scale demonstration against segregation in the United States.

Rosa Parks in 1955
Rosa Parks in 1955, with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the background

 

#6 She had had a prior encounter with the bus driver who told her to vacate her seat

Incidentally, the famous bus incident was not the first time that Rosa Parks had encountered James F. Blake. It was a practice in Montgomery that if white passengers were sitting in the front of the bus, then the blacks had to board at the front to pay the fare, then leave the bus and re-enter through the rear door. In 1943, Rosa Parks boarded a bus and paid the fare. She moved to her seat but the bus driver James F. Blake told her to enter the bus again from the back door, as was the practice. When Parks exited the vehicle, Blake drove off without her.

Rosa Parks in a bus after the Montgomery bus boycott
Rosa Parks and reporter Nicholas C. Chriss on a Montgomery bus on December 21, 1956, the day city’s public transportation system was legally integrated

 

#7 She was forced to leave Montgomery after the Montgomery bus boycott

African Americans constituted at least 75 percent of Montgomery’s bus ridership and the Montgomery bus boycott caused enough financial damage to the city transit system. It lasted from December 5, 1955 to December 20, 1956, when the US Supreme Court ruled Alabama and Montgomery laws requiring segregated buses to be unconstitutional. The Montgomery bus boycott is regarded as one of the most important events of the African American Civil Rights Movement. In 1956, the year of the boycott, Rosa Parks traveled throughout the country, raising awareness and funds for the movement. Early in the boycott, both Rosa and her husband Raymond lost their jobs and their family was plunged into a decade of economic instability. Unable to find new jobs and constantly receiving death threats, Raymond and Rosa Parks left Montgomery in 1957. They stayed for a while in Hampton, Virginia before moving to Detroit in the U.S. state of Michigan.

 

#8 Rosa Parks was assaulted at the age of 81 in 1994

In Detroit, Rosa Parks served as secretary and receptionist of congressman John Conyers from 1965 until her retirement in 1988. In this capacity, she focused on socio-economic issues including welfare, education, job discrimination and affordable housing. As an activist, she continued to work on issues such as reparations, black history, anti-police brutality, freedom for black political prisoners, independent black political power and economic justice. 1977 was a year of personal loss for Rosa Parks. Her husband died of throat cancer on August 19 and her brother, her only sibling, died of cancer that November. In 1992, she published Rosa Parks: My Story, an autobiography which recounts her life leading to her decision to keep her seat on the bus. On August 30, 1994, Parks was robbed and assaulted in her home in central Detroit. The attacker Joseph Skipper was ultimately captured and sentenced to 8 to 15 years in prison. 81 years old Parks had to be treated for facial injuries and swelling on the right side of her face.

Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela
Rosa Parks greets Nelson and Winnie Mandela after his release from prison in 1990

 

#9 She believed that God gave her the strength for her famous refusal to give up her seat

Rosa Parks was a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest independent Protestant denomination founded by black people in the world. Her belief in God stretches back to her childhood in Alabama when her grandfather led daily devotions and her grandmother read the Bible to her each day. In 1995, Rosa Parks’ book Quiet Strength was published. It is a memoir which focuses on her faith. In it Parks has revealed that her famous refusal to give up her seat to a white man in December, 1955, was an act of faith. She writes that God took away all her fear leading to the bold act. Quiet Strength also tells us how religion has been an integral part of the civil rights movement. Parks writes that “The church was and is the foundation of our community. It became our strength, our refuge and our haven. We would pray, sing and meet in church. We would use Scriptures, testimonies and hymns to strengthen us against the hatred and violence going on around us.”

Rosa Parks buried at the Rotunda
Rosa Parks casket at the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in 2005

 

#10 Rosa Parks was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996

In 1996, President Bill Clinton presented Rosa Parks with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 1999, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. These are the highest civilian awards in the United States. Rosa Parks died of natural causes on October 24, 2005 in her apartment in Detroit, Michigan. She was 92 years old. Her coffin was flown to Montgomery and in the evening, it was transported to Washington, D.C. in a bus similar to the one in which she made her protest. She was laid to rest in honor in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Parks was the first woman and third non-US government official to lie in honor at the Capitol Rotunda. For her role in the civil rights movement, Rosa Parks is often called “the mother of the civil rights movement” and the “the first lady of civil rights”. Her birthday, February 4, and the day she was arrested, December 1, have both become Rosa Parks Day.

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