Her Courage Ignited a Civil Rights Movement That Changed the World
She has iconic status in American culture and left an inspiring legacy for human rights around the world. Her life shows us that ordinary people can make a positive difference with one decisive action. We believe that people are like pearls with unique strengths and luster that develop from grit inside an oyster. This is another installment of the Living like a Pearl series. Find the other stories here.
Would we have heard Martin Luther King Jr. say “I have a dream” in one of the most famous speeches in history, if Rosa Parks had given up her seat on the bus? It’s unlikely. By not standing up, she made a stand against oppression, and launched the civil rights movement which brought Martin Luther King Jr. to his destined role.
Rosa Louise McCauley was born February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama to an ancestral mix of Irish-Scottish lineage and a great-grandmother who had been a slave. She grew up surrounded by deep-rooted racism and segregation, and watched the Klu Klux Klan march past her house. More opportunities existed for white children than those of color, and she left school to care for her grandmother.
Marrying Raymond Parks at 19 years old in 1932, she joined him in becoming active in The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. This civil rights organization would sow the seeds of determined resolve in Rosa, preparing her for what was to come later in her life.
That day came on December 1, 1955 on a bus, while going home from work at the Montgomery Fair department store.
Since 1900, Montgomery Alabama segregated bus passengers by race in different sections. Black riders were required to move or stand when there were no white-only seats left. As Rosa sat in the ‘colored’ section for blacks, the white-only seats filled up along its route, with several white men having to stand. When the bus driver demanded that four black people give up their seats and move so the white passengers could sit, three of them submitted, but Rosa did not. Instead she moved to the window seat in her current section instead of the repositioned colored section.
Reflecting on that defining moment, Rosa later 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.”
Her peaceful defiance led to her arrest. Asking the police officer why, his answer was only “I don’t know, but the law’s the law, and you’re under arrest.”
“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.” Rosa Parks
Rosa’s case garnered immediate support from the Women’s Political Council, who organized a city-wide bus boycott demanding equal treatment and courtesy for black passengers. Inspired by his Christian beliefs and the peaceful activism of Mahatma Gandhi, the boycott would also bring Martin Luther King’s public leadership to the boycott effort.
Found guilty after a 30-minute trial, Rosa appealed her conviction and formally challenged the legality of racial segregation. The ‘Montgomery Improvement Association’ was formed to lead the continuing boycott effort, and a young and unknown Baptist Church minister was hired as its president; Martin Luther King, Jr.
The defiant action of the black community was met with retaliation, and black churches were burned and Martin Luther King’s home was bombed. However, the black community’s unified determination resulted in one of the largest and most successful movements against racial segregation, and fueled many other protests to follow. The bus boycott would ultimately last for 382 days until the law requiring segregation on public buses was finally lifted.
Regarded as one of the finest citizens of Montgomery Alabama, Rosa became the dignified face of civil disobedience. Through her role in sparking the boycott, she played a catalyzing role in the awareness of African American’s oppression, and the civil rights struggle.
Rosa was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in 1996 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1997. She left the world a better place at the age of 92 on October 24, 2005.