Grateful American® Foundation

Rosa Parks

Special to the Newsletter
by Michael F. Bishop

On a cool December day in 1955, Rosa Parks left the Montgomery, Alabama department store where she worked as a seamstress, and waited for a bus to take her home. When it arrived, she dutifully walked down the aisle past the first ten rows that were reserved for white people only. When she reached the eleventh row, she sat down. Under the prevailing regime of segregation, she was expected to know her place.

Diminutive in early middle age, she would not have appeared to her fellow passengers as a revolutionary. But when the white section of the bus soon filled and the driver walked back to order her and other nearby black passengers to move further back to accommodate more whites, she made a fateful decision. As she later recounted, “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.” Three black passengers rose and moved toward the back of the bus. Parks obligingly slid over to the window seat, but she refused to leave her row. The driver, James Blake-unaccustomed to such defiance-­threatened to call the police if she did not move. She refused and was arrested, and in the custody of a police officer, Rosa Parks stepped off the bus and into history.

Rosa Louise McCauley was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, on February 4, 1913. Her parents divorced and she received an intermittent education before dropping out of high school to care for her ailing family members. But along the way, she learned to sew, and was able to make a modest living. Her early life was haunted by the specter of racism and the terror of the Ku Klux Klan. Her experiences instilled a horror of injustice and a determination to fight against oppression. She was encouraged by her husband, Raymond Parks, a barber, and activist whom she married in 1932. He urged her to complete her high school education and introduced her to the NAACP, of which he was a member. She became the secretary of the Montgomery chapter and began a lifetime of activism.

The immediate consequences of the famous bus incident were minor; Parks was bailed out within hours, and after a quick trial the following day she was found guilty of disorderly conduct and received a small fine. And she was not the first black woman to resist racial segregation on buses. But somehow her actions that day sparked a new wave of resistance-including a year-long bus boycott and a Supreme Court case, Browder v. Gayle–that led eventually to the end of “Jim Crow.”

And on that wave rode a young preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr., who would become the leader and most famous martyr of the Civil Rights Movement. For the rest of her life, Parks would remain an icon of the Movement, even as she and her husband suffered job losses and financial deprivation in retaliation.

Her famous bus ride in 1955 has become enshrouded in myth; in later years, she complained about the widespread but mistaken notion that she was simply too tired after a long day at work to move toward the back of the bus. In fact, she was tired of being pushed around. And she had tangled with Blake before; a dozen years ago, he had ejected her from another bus. As she later recalled, “My resisting being mistreated on the bus did not begin with that particular arrest. I did a lot of walking in Montgomery.”

After a series of disagreements with Dr. King, Parks moved to Detroit and worked in politics as an aide to Congressman John Conyers. Her later years were marred by poverty, illness, and violence; when she was 81, a young man attacked and robbed her in her home. But she was showered with awards and honorary degrees, including the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Incredibly, she faced eviction and ill health–in old age–until the charity of others secured her a comfortable home.

Rosa Parks died in Detroit in 2005 aged of 92. Her body was transported to Montgomery for a memorial service, and then taken to Washington, D.C., where tens of thousands of mourners walked past her coffin in the rotunda of the Capitol. Flags were flown at half-mast all around the country. But her legacy lives on. As she once put it, “Life is to be lived to its fullest so that death is just another chapter. Memories of our lives, of our works and our deeds will continue in others.” And her quiet example remains an inspiration to those, like her, who are “tired of giving in.”

Michael F. Bishop, a writer and historian, is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

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