Born Rosa Louise McCauley, February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, AL; died of natural causes, October 24, 2005, in Detroit, MI. Civil rights activist. Rosa Parks was best known for her act of civil disobedience in December of 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to white man in Montgomery, Alabama. Her arrest led to a Supreme Court decision that segregation on such forms of public transportation was illegal, sparking the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Parks was regarded as a hero and spent the whole of her life as a face of the movement. Upon her death Rev. Jesse Jackson told E.R. Shipp of the New York Times , "She sat down in order that we might stand up. Paradoxically, her imprisonment opened the doors for our long journey to freedom."
Parks was the first of two children born to James and Leona (Edwards) McCauley. Her parents were farmers who held other jobs as well. Her father worked as a carpenter while her mother was also a teacher. An ill child, Parks' parents separated when she was young and her mother raised her and her brother on her maternal grandparents' farm in Pine Level, Alabama. Parks received her early education at a blacks-only one-room schoolhouse where classes were only held for five months a year so that students could work the fields. Violence against African Americans, including lynchings and burnings, was a part of her life, as the Ku Klux Klan was active in the area.
An aunt lived in Montgomery, Alabama, where Parks began attending schools at the age of eleven. Though she attended Miss White's School for Girls in Montgomery as well as the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, Parks' education at the Alabama State Teachers College was cut short when she left school at 16 to take care of her ailing grandmother. To help support her family, she learned how to type and took in sewing.
In 1932, Parks married Raymond Parks, a barber, who was active in the Civil Rights movement. Parks became politically active as well. She was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and was serving as the secretary of the chapter in Montgomery, Alabama, by 1943. As a member of the Montgomery Voters' League, Parks also helped blacks pass the tests needed for them to register to vote. It took her three attempts to pass the test herself.
By the mid-1950s, Parks was working as a seamstress at the Montgomery Fair department store and as a housekeeper for a white couple, Clifford and Virginia Durr. The 1955 incident which pushed the Civil Rights movement forward was born of Parks' own fatigue from the racial segregation she faced in daily life in Alabama using black-only elevators, water fountains, and schools. It also showed the power of non-violent action and made her a national figure. Parks was chosen to be a symbol for the cause because she was a model citizen in Montgomery.
After refusing to give up her seat on that December day coming home from work, Parks was taken into custody and fined $14. She was eventually convicted of violating segregation laws, but did not accept the situation. With the guidance of civil rights lawyers, she helped challenge the laws which allowed such segregation. The incident sparked a 13-month boycott of the buses in Montgomery by African Americans organized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Improvement Association. In 1956, the Supreme Court declared this type of segregation illegal.
While Parks' arrest and the subsequent case were of importance nationally and historically, the incident and its aftermath had a negative affect on her immediate life. She was dismissed from her job, received threats, and was hassled as were many who supported the bus boycott and the Civil Rights movement. Her health was also negatively affected. In addition, Parks had some disagreements with leaders of the movement in Montgomery including King. In 1957, she and her husband left Alabama and moved first to Virginia and later to Detroit, Michigan, with Parks' mother.
In Detroit, Parks supported herself again first by doing sewing in her home for a number of years. In 1965, Parks was hired by John Conyers, a Detroit-area Congressman, to be his aide, a position she held until 1988. As Parks became regarded as an important, inspirational figure in the civil rights movement, she used her position to raise funds for the NAACP and continue to push for greater racial equality.
In 1987, Parks co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development. The group sponsored several programs to educate about the Civil Rights Movement. Despite her fame, she still suffered. In 1994, she was mugged by a 28-year-old man for $53 in her own home. Despite such setbacks, Parks received many honors for her life, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996 and the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1999.
By 2002, Parks was suffering from dementia and faced some financial difficulties. Parks could not pay her rent and relied on a local church to cover the costs for a time. Such problems did not change her importance. Conyers told Patricia Sullivan of the Washington Post upon Parks' death, "There are very few people who can say their actions and conduct changed the face of the nation, and Rosa Parks is one of those individuals." Parks died on October 24, 2005, at the age of 92. As her husband died in 1977 and the marriage was childless, she has no survivors in her immediate family.
CNN. com, http://www.cnn.com/2005/US/10/25/parks.obit/index.html (October 25, 2005); Economist (U.S.), October 29, 2005, p. 90; Independent (London), October 26, 2005, p. 36; New York Times , October 25, 2005, p. A1; People , November 7, 2005, pp. 72-74; Washington Post , October 25, 2005, p. A1.