While many Americans were rockin’ “around the clock” as President Eisenhower led the nation in its tenth year into the Cold War, a 42-year-old woman in Montgomery, Alabama landed herself in a pivotal moment in history by refusing to give up her seat on a Cleveland Avenue bus on December 1, 1955. Rosa Parks’ refusal to move from her seat for white passengers resulted in her arrest, which sparked the energy behind the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott. This boycott ended in 1956 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional.
Rosa Parks is world-known for this one bold act, but many trace her activist nature further back, even to her childhood days when she refused to put up with racism and physical abuse. At 19, she was married to a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and she was a member by 1943. Decades before the #metoo movement, Parks was also involved in pushing for criminal justice in sexual assault cases in the ‘40s, including the abduction and assault of Recy Taylor, an incident that was recently featured in a 2017 film.
As it became increasingly difficult for them to live in the South after her arrest, Parks and her husband eventually moved to Hampton, Virginia, and soon after Detroit, Michigan in 1957. She had a challenging time finding work and routinely received death threats. Even after the move north, she continued to participate in movements that she cared about including fair education, job discrimination and affordable housing. Eventually, U.S Representative John Conyers Jr. hired her as his secretary. She worked with him until she retired in 1988. Alongside her day-job duties, Parks collaborated with the League of Revolutionary Black Voters, the black power movement, organized for freedom of political prisoners, co-founded the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation and served on the Board of Advocates of Planned Parenthood.
Even after retiring she kept busy and wrote two books, Rosa Parks: My Story and Quiet Strength. Parks died in 2005 and was the first woman and the second black person to lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. In total, she was honored in four services in Alabama, Washington D.C. and Michigan. U.S. flags were flown at half-mast and over 50,000 people attended her viewing.
As a young girl frustratingly navigating Jim Crow laws, it is doubtful that Rosa Parks ever imagined herself as “The Mother of the Freedom Movement.” But through a bit of quiet stubbornness, unwavering persistence and a bit of historical serendipity, she landed herself a leading role in the ongoing civil rights movement.
Happy birthday, Rosa Parks!
(February 4, 1913 – October 24, 2005)