06 April 2021

Rosa Parks, heroic role model in the battle against racism

Rosa McCauley (1913-2005) was born in Alabama where she and her parents lived with the maternal grand parents, and where her younger brother Sylvester was born. Rosa’s mother Leona was a teacher, and the family greatly valued educat­ion. Rosa moved to Montgomery where she studied at high school, but left at 16 to care for her dying grandma. Then she went to an industrial school for girls and later enrolled at Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes.
Rosa Parks on a Montgomery bus, 1955

Growing up in the segregated South, Parks was often con­fronted with racial discrimination and violence, and became aware of civil rights issues at a young age. Co-existing with white peop­le in a city governed by Jim Crow seg­re­gation laws (which started with Reconstruction in 1877) was fraught with daily frustrations: Blacks had separate and inferior schools, water fount­ains, librar­ies, hospitals, orphanages and other immoral rest­rict­ions. And blacks could only sit on seats at the back of a bus.
In 1932, at 19, she married Raymond Parks, a self-educated older man who was involved in fighting against racial injust­ice as a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People/NAACP. He supported Rosa in her efforts to earn her high-school diploma, which she did, then found work as a seam­stress. Event­ual­ly Rosa was elected secretary of the Montgomery chap­t­er of the NAACP and she served in that role for years. Rosa also worked closely with the president of the local branch of NAACP Edgar Daniel Nixon, the man who became an advocate for blacks wanting to vote.

Busy yes, but Rosa was not yet known around the nation. Then in Dec 1955, a white man had no bus seat because all the seats in the designated White Section were taken. The driver told the riders in the four seats of the first row of the coloured section to stand, in effect adding another row to the white section. The three others obeyed the city’s racial segregation ordinances. Parks remained in her seat, in violation of the ordinances. Eventually two police officers approached the stopped bus, assessed the sit­uat­ion, arrested and fingerprinted Rosa and placed her in custody.

4 days later Parks was found guilty of violating segregation laws, giv­en a suspended sentence and fined $10 plus $4 in court costs. [Apparently it wasn’t the first time she’d clashed with driver James Blake. 12 years earlier, Parks paid her fare at the front, then resisted the rule in place for blacks to disembark and re-enter through the back door. She stood her ground until Blake pulled her coat sleeve, enraged, to demand her cooperation].
The Montgomery police arrested Parks and fingerprinted her

Word of Parks’ arrest had spread quickly and Edgar Nixon was there when Parks was released on bail that evening. Nixon had long­ hoped to find a black person of great integ­rity to become the plaintiff in a test case regarding segregation laws. Sitting in Parks’ home, Nixon convinced Parks’ family that Rosa was that plaintiff. Another idea arose as well: the blacks of Mont­gom­ery would boycott the buses on the day of Parks’ trial, 5th Dec. That night, flyers were printed off to be sent home with black school children regarding the boycott.

The Mon­tgomery Bus Boycott became an important social movement; in fact Rosa actually hel­p­ed organise & plan it. On Dec 5th, the boy­cott was begun by the pastor of the local Baptist Church, Rev Martin Luther King. Montgomery’s black residents had avoid­ed municipal buses whenever pos­s­ible, because the Negroes-In-Back policy was so demeaning. Still, the boycott hurt the bus company even more than expected; 70% of the riders on any work day were black.

The boycott lasted more than a year and ended only when the USA Supreme Court up­held a lower courts’ decision, declaring Montgomery’s segregated seating unconstitut­ion­al. The court ord­er was served in Dec 1956 and the boycott promptly ended.

For her role in initiating the campaign, Parks became known as the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement. But the outcome for her personally was mixed; Rosa had been briefly gaoled for refus­ing to give up her seat, lost her job for participating in the boycott and felt harassed throughout the year. And the boycott engendered ang­er and viol­ence in much of Montgomery’s white population; Nixon’s and Rev King’s homes were bombed. I realise viol­ence didn’t deter the boycott leaders, but I would have been very anxious. Thankfully Montgomery’s drama filled the national and international press.
Rosa Parks going into court

After the boycott, Parks and family moved firstly to Virginia and then permanently settled in Detroit in 1957. Her success in the south proved to be very valuable in Detroit’s Civil Rights Move­ment. Parks became an administrative aide in the Detroit office of a congressman in 1965, and stayed there until retirement.

By 1980 Parks, now widowed, suffered from fin­an­cial and health troubles. Fortunately local community members and churches came to­gether to support the now impoverished heroine. She remained active in the NAACP & the Southern Christian Lead­ership Conference. Then she travelled in support of civil-rights causes and wrote an auto­biography Rosa Parks: My Story 1992 with Jim Haskins. In 1999 Parks was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for civilians.

Rosa Parks was not the first American to be aware of blat­ant racism and violence. But her brave actions are still rec­og­nised as the spark that ignited and organised the USA's civil rights movement. In 2005, when she died, this was the rich leg­acy of resistance against racial injustice that she left.
 Dr Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks  
Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Aug 1965. 


Student of History said...

The Rosa Parks book was inspirational, but her experience of violence and racism kept me awake at night. Hard to believe it was 1955, not 1855.

Hels said...


It is probable that there was vicious racism in all the countries we know, but 1955 wasn't very long ago. I remember the books I read back then, the music we enjoyed, the ballet lessons etc in 1955! But I don't remember anyone having to risk standing up to racism alone..she must have been a very brave, committed woman. No wonder Rosa Parks' honest history kept you awake at night.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - I didn't know her story ... so this has been interesting and informative for me to read - thank you. I hadn't realised she'd moved to Detroit ... great post to read - all the best - Hilary

bazza said...

It seems that at that time the segregated south was not much different to South African apartheid. The braveness of people like Rosa Parks can not be over-stated. It's been a long hard road and the end is still not in sight.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s awkwardly adroit Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, The more I read about the old (or not that very old) South, the more glad I am from the North. The segregation as practiced there was beyond despicable, and it is surprising that there weren't more decent people who objected and did not want to be a part of it. It certainly makes a mockery of the much-vaunted idea of "Southern gallantry" and exposes it for a thinly disguised Southern hypocrisy.

Luiz Gomes said...

Boa tarde Hels, combater o racismo sempre.

Andrew said...

I thought I knew the story well enough, but you've added extra detail. I didn't know about the earlier issue with the same driver. It is not exactly efficient to have passengers board at the front, pay the fare, exit and reboard through the back door. It is quite absurd really.

Hels said...


Blogging is a great way to find new and important information, particularly when countries have under-reported awkward parts of their histories. And when a post sparks a special interest in your thinking, hopefully there are further reading ideas on offer. Although Rosa Parks: My Story was published back in 1992, the current Black Lives Matter movement has made the reading urgent again.

Hels said...


I too thought of South Africa because a small proportion (c15%) of the South Africa’s land was set aside for Black living space, while the vast majority of the cities and farm lands were set aside for Whites. Note that Blacks accounted back then for c75% of the population.

Hels said...


it is a tricky historical time line to follow. The 13th Amendment of Dec 1865 officially abolished slavery but I am sure that slavery continued in various forms in various states over quite a long time. Not to mention the increasing successes of the KKK in the South. So thank goodness millions of Black families could move to employment and housing in the northern states, largely from 1910 on.

Hels said...


racism has been hideous in many countries, over many centuries. But most people believed/hoped that WW2 would have ended vicious racism for ever. Clearly that was totally wrong, including in Montgomery.

Hels said...


when we read the Jim Crow seg­re­gation laws carefully, they had nothing to do with quality housing, building the economy, developing a health care system for all citizens, increasing the number of adults who voted or improving public transport. They were entirely concerned with strengthening pro-racist laws in those state and local governments who wanted them.

The last Jim Crow laws were only cancelled by the 1964 Civil Rights and the 1965 Voting Rights Acts.

Maria said...

Jesus, I believe, I adore, I hope and I love You, I ask Your forgiveness for those who do not believe, do not wait, do not worship and do not love You.

Hels said...


I am glad you read the post because forgiveness and forgetting are rarely helpful responses. Rosa Parks only made a great difference to the world because she was brave enough to take positive action. Forgiveness would have merely given quiet approval to the racists.