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Rosa Parks: A 50th Anniversary

Daniel J. Evans Library, Government Documents/Maps
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Last update: January 20, 2010
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In Memoriam








Rosa Louise Parks

b. February 4, 1913 as Rosa Louise McCauley

A retired seamstress and figure in the American Civil Rights Movement, most famous for her refusal in 1955 to give up a bus seat to a white man and her subsequent arrest.

The Boycott











The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a political protest campaign in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama intended to oppose the city's policy of racial segregation on its public transit system. The ensuing struggle eventually led to a United States Supreme Court decision on November 13, 1956 that declared illegal the Alabama and Montgomery laws requiring segregated buses.

The boycott was precipitated by Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her bus seat in favor of a white passenger. In Montgomery, the dividing line between the front seats reserved for white passengers and the back ones reserved for black passengers was not fixed. When the front of the bus was full, the driver could order black passengers sitting towards the front of the bus to surrender their seat. Rosa Parks' seat was in that border area. When she was arrested on December 1, 1955, the local civil rights organizations, with which Ms. Parks was involved, saw this as the ideal opportunity for political action.

In church meetings with the new minister in the city, Martin Luther King, Jr., a city-wide boycott of public transit as a protest for a fixed dividing line for the segegrated sections of the buses was proposed and passed.

The boycott proved extremely effective, with enough riders lost to the city transit system to cause serious economic distress. Instead of riding buses, boycotters organized a system of carpools, with volunteer car owners carrying people to various destinations. Some white housewives also drove their black domestic servants to work, although it is unclear to what extent this was based on sympathy with the boycott, versus the simple desire to have their staff present and working. When the city pressured local insurance companies to stop insuring cars used in the carpools, the boycott leaders arranged policies with Lloyd's of London.

In response, opposing whites formed chapters of the White Citizens Councils. Like the Ku Klux Klan, the Councils sometimes resorted to violence: Martin Luther King's house was firebombed and boycotters were physically attacked.

The city finally resorted to arresting Dr. King for organizing the boycott. That move backfired by bringing national attention to the protest. Eventually, the United States Supreme Court affirmed a lower court decision that Alabama's racial segregation laws for buses were unconstitutional, handing the protesters a clear victory. This victory led to a city ordinance that allowed black bus passengers to sit virtually anywhere they wanted. Martin Luther King capped off the victory of a magnanimous speech to encourage acceptance of the decision.

The boycott resulted in the US civil rights movement receiving one of its first victories, and gave Martin Luther King the national attention that would make him one of the prime leaders of the cause.


Aspects of Parks' Story and Its Place in the Civil Rights Movement

While few historians doubt Park's contribution to the civil rights movement or the bravery of her refusal, some have questioned some of the more mythic elements of her story.

Standard accounts of Parks' act of civil disobedience in 1955 refer to her simply as a "tired seamstress." Parks stated in her autobiography, My Life, that it was not true that she was physically tired but was "tired of giving in."

Also, some accounts downplay her prior involvement with the NAACP and the Highlander Folk School in an attempt to portray her as an average, middle-aged woman and not a political activist.

Many accounts fail to clarify: she was sitting in the "colored" section of the bus. With the "white" section full, a white man wanted her to give up her seat. That is, it was not a matter of protest on any level when she sat down; the protest was in her refusal to give up a seat in the "colored" section.

Parks was not the first African-American to refuse to give up her seat to a white person. The NAACP accepted and litigated other cases before, such as that of Irene Morgan, ten years earlier, which resulted in a victory in the Supreme Court on Commerce Clause grounds. That victory only overturned state segregation laws as applied to actual travel in interstate commerce, such as interstate bus travel. The Rosa Parks case is considered the landmark because it applied to all segregationist laws, not just those affecting interstate commerce.

The NAACP had additionally considered but rejected some earlier protesters deemed unable or unsuitable to withstand the pressure of a legal challenge to segregation laws (see Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith). The selection of Parks for a test case supported by the NAACP has been speculated to be in part because she was employed by the NAACP.

Awards and Honors

Rosa Parks in the year 2000. After a lifetime of activity fighting racism, Parks was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999.

106th Congress Resolution 127


106th Congress H.R. 573

The Rosa Parks Highway is named after her.

Detroit News: KKK to Clean Rosa Parks Hwy. KKK sponsors 2 miles of a St. Louis highway; city immediately renames it Rosa Parks Highway.

In 1983, she was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame for her achievements in civil rights.

The Rosa Parks Library and Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, was dedicated in November 2001. It tells the story of the events leading up to her historic act of civil disobedience, and how her simple act connects to the larger tapestry of the civil rights movement.



Please Visit These External Links...

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks The Woman Who Changed a Nation

The TIME 100: Rosa Parks

The Academy of Achievment: Rosa Parks

Troy State University: The Rosa Parks Museum and Library

Troy State University: A Rosa Parks Story

The Rosa Parks Portal

Thomson-Gale Free Resources: Rosa Parks

National Women's Hall of Fame: Rosa Parks

Wikipedia: Rosa Parks

The Montgomery Bus Boycott

The Montgomery Bus Boycott

North Park University: The Montgomery Bus Boycott

Montgomery Bus Boycott
(w/ MIDI of "We Shall Overcome")

Alabama Department of Archives and History: The Montgomery Bus Boycott

Troy State University: The Montgomery Bus Boycott

Wikipedia: The Montgomery Bus Boycott



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