Rosa Louise McCauley Parks (February 4, 1913 – October 24, 2005) was an American activist in the civil rights movement best known for her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott.
Since the founding of the practice in 1852, Parks was the 31st person, the first American who had not been a U.S. government official, and the second private person (after the French planner Pierre L'Enfant) to be honored in this way. She was the first woman and the second black person to lie in honor in the Capitol. An estimated 50,000 people viewed the casket there, and the event was broadcast on television on October 31, 2005. A memorial service was held that afternoon at Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, DC.
In 1900, Montgomery had passed a city ordinance to segregate bus passengers by race. Conductors were empowered to assign seats to achieve that goal. According to the law, no passenger would be required to move or give up their seat and stand if the bus was crowded and no other seats were available. Over time and by custom, however, Montgomery bus drivers adopted the practice of requiring black riders to move when there were no white-only seats left.
Rosa Parks was born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama, on February 4, 1913, to Leona (née Edwards), a teacher, and James McCauley, a carpenter. She was of Cherokee-Creek descent with one of her great-grandmothers having been a documented Native American slave. Additionally, she had a Scots-Irish great-grandfather. She was small as a child and suffered poor health with chronic tonsillitis. When her parents separated, she moved with her mother to Pine Level, just outside the state capital, Montgomery. She grew up on a farm with her maternal grandparents, mother, and younger brother Sylvester. They all were members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), a century-old independent black denomination founded by free blacks in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the early nineteenth century.
In 1932, Rosa married Raymond Parks, a barber from Montgomery. He was a member of the NAACP, which at the time was collecting money to support the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of black men falsely accused of raping two white women. Rosa took numerous jobs, ranging from domestic worker to hospital aide. At her husband's urging, she finished her high school studies in 1933, at a time when less than 7% of African Americans had a high-school diploma.
Parks did not originate the idea of protesting segregation with a bus sit-in. Those preceding her included Bayard Rustin in 1942, Irene Morgan in 1946, Lillie Mae Bradford in 1951, Sarah Louise Keys in 1952, and the members of the ultimately successful Browder v. Gayle 1956 lawsuit (Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith) who were arrested in Montgomery for not giving up their bus seats months before Parks.
After working all day, Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus, a General Motors Old Look bus belonging to the Montgomery City Lines, around 6 p.m., Thursday, December 1, 1955, in downtown Montgomery. She paid her fare and sat in an empty seat in the first row of back seats reserved for blacks in the "colored" section. Near the middle of the bus, her row was directly behind the ten seats reserved for white passengers. Initially, she did not notice that the bus driver was the same man, James F. Blake, who had left her in the rain in 1943. As the bus traveled along its regular route, all of the white-only seats in the bus filled up. The bus reached the third stop in front of the Empire Theater, and several white passengers boarded. Blake noted that two or three white passengers were standing, as the front of the bus had filled to capacity. He moved the "colored" section sign behind Parks and demanded that four black people give up their seats in the middle section so that the white passengers could sit. Years later, in recalling the events of the day, Parks 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."
One day in 1943, Parks boarded a bus and paid the fare. She then moved to her seat, but driver James F. Blake told her to follow city rules and enter the bus again from the back door. When Parks exited the vehicle, Blake drove off without her. Parks waited for the next bus, determined never to ride with Blake again.
In December 1943, Parks became active in the civil rights movement, joined the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, and was elected secretary at a time when this was considered a woman's job. She later said, "I was the only woman there, and they needed a secretary, and I was too timid to say no." She continued as secretary until 1957. She worked for the local NAACP leader Edgar Nixon, even though he maintained that "Women don't need to be nowhere but in the kitchen." When Parks asked, "Well, what about me?", he replied: "I need a secretary and you are a good one."
In 1944, in her capacity as secretary, she investigated the gang-rape of Recy Taylor, a black woman from Abbeville, Alabama. Parks and other civil rights activists organized "The Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor", launching what the Chicago Defender called "the strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade."
In the 1940s, Parks and her husband were members of the Voters' League. Sometime soon after 1944, she held a brief job at Maxwell Air Force Base, which, despite its location in Montgomery, Alabama, did not permit racial segregation because it was federal property. She rode on its integrated trolley. Speaking to her biographer, Parks noted, "You might just say Maxwell opened my eyes up." Parks worked as a housekeeper and seamstress for Clifford and Virginia Durr, a white couple. Politically liberal, the Durrs became her friends. They encouraged—and eventually helped sponsor—Parks in the summer of 1955 to attend the Highlander Folk School, an education center for activism in workers' rights and racial equality in Monteagle, Tennessee. There Parks was mentored by the veteran organizer Septima Clark. In 1945, despite the Jim Crow laws and discrimination by registrars, she succeeded in registering to vote on her third try.
In August 1955, black teenager Emmett Till was brutally murdered after reportedly flirting with a young white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi. On November 27, 1955, four days before she would make her stand on the bus, Rosa Parks attended a mass meeting at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery that addressed this case, as well as the recent murders of the activists George W. Lee and Lamar Smith. The featured speaker was T. R. M. Howard, a black civil rights leader from Mississippi who headed the Regional Council of Negro Leadership. Howard brought news of the recent acquittal of the two men who had murdered Till. Parks was deeply saddened and angry at the news, particularly because Till's case had garnered much more attention than any of the cases she and the Montgomery NAACP had worked on—and yet, the two men still walked free.
On Sunday, December 4, 1955, plans for the Montgomery bus boycott were announced at black churches in the area, and a front-page article in the Montgomery Advertiser helped spread the word. At a church rally that night, those attending agreed unanimously to continue the boycott until they were treated with the level of courtesy they expected, until black drivers were hired, and until seating in the middle of the bus was handled on a first-come basis.
On the day of Parks' trial — December 5, 1955 — the WPC distributed the 35,000 leaflets. The handbill read,
In 1957, Raymond and Rosa Parks left Montgomery for Hampton, Virginia; mostly because she was unable to find work. She also disagreed with King and other leaders of Montgomery's struggling civil rights movement about how to proceed, and was constantly receiving death threats. In Hampton, she found a job as a hostess in an inn at Hampton Institute, a historically black college.
Later that year, at the urging of her brother and sister-in-law in Detroit, Sylvester and Daisy McCauley, Rosa and Raymond Parks and her mother moved north to join them. The City of Detroit attempted to cultivate a progressive reputation, but Parks encountered numerous signs of discrimination against African-Americans. Schools were effectively segregated, and services in black neighborhoods substandard. In 1964, Parks told an interviewer that, "I don't feel a great deal of difference here ... Housing segregation is just as bad, and it seems more noticeable in the larger cities." She regularly participated in the movement for open and fair housing.
Like many Detroit blacks, Parks remained particularly concerned about housing issues. She herself lived in a neighborhood, Virginia Park, which had been compromised by highway construction and urban renewal. By 1962, these policies had destroyed 10,000 structures in Detroit, displacing 43,096 people, 70 percent of them African-American. Parks lived just a mile from the epicenter of the riot that took place in Detroit in 1967, and she considered housing discrimination a major factor that provoked the disorder.
In the aftermath Parks collaborated with members of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Republic of New Afrika in raising awareness of police abuse during the conflict. She served on a "people's tribunal" on August 30, 1967, investigating the killing of three young men by police during the 1967 Detroit uprising, in what came to be known as the Algiers Motel incident. She also helped form the Virginia Park district council to help rebuild the area. The council facilitated the building of the only black-owned shopping center in the country. Parks took part in the black power movement, attending the Philadelphia Black Power conference, and the Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. She also supported and visited the Black Panther school in Oakland.
Her husband died of throat cancer on August 19, 1977, and her brother, her only sibling, died of cancer that November. Her personal ordeals caused her to become removed from the civil rights movement. She learned from a newspaper of the death of Fannie Lou Hamer, once a close friend. Parks suffered two broken bones in a fall on an icy sidewalk, an injury which caused considerable and recurring pain. She decided to move with her mother into an apartment for senior citizens. There she nursed her mother Leona through the final stages of cancer and geriatric dementia until she died in 1979 at the age of 92.
In 1980, Parks—widowed and without immediate family—rededicated herself to civil rights and educational organizations. She co-founded the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation for college-bound high school seniors, to which she donated most of her speaker fees. In February 1987, she co-founded, with Elaine Eason Steele, the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, an institute that runs the "Pathways to Freedom" bus tours which introduce young people to important civil rights and Underground Railroad sites throughout the country. Parks also served on the Board of Advocates of Planned Parenthood. Though her health declined as she entered her seventies, Parks continued to make many appearances and devoted considerable energy to these causes.
Parks rendered crucial assistance in the first campaign for Congress by John Conyers. She persuaded Martin Luther King (who was generally reluctant to endorse local candidates) to appear with Conyers, thereby boosting the novice candidate's profile. When Conyers was elected, he hired her as a secretary and receptionist for his congressional office in Detroit. She held this position until she retired in 1988. In a telephone interview with CNN on October 24, 2005, Conyers recalled, "You treated her with deference because she was so quiet, so serene — just a very special person ... There was only one Rosa Parks." Doing much of the daily constituent work for Conyers, Parks often focused on socio-economic issues including welfare, education, job discrimination, and affordable housing. She visited schools, hospitals, senior citizen facilities, and other community meetings and kept Conyers grounded in community concerns and activism.
In 1992, Parks published Rosa Parks: My Story, an autobiography aimed at younger readers, which recounts her life leading to her decision to keep her seat on the bus. A few years later, she published Quiet Strength (1995), her memoir, which focuses on her faith.
In 1994, the Ku Klux Klan applied to sponsor a portion of United States Interstate 55 in St. Louis County and Jefferson County, Missouri, near St. Louis, for cleanup (which allowed them to have signs stating that this section of highway was maintained by the organization). Since the state could not refuse the KKK's sponsorship, the Missouri legislature voted to name the highway section the "Rosa Parks Highway". When asked how she felt about this honor, she is reported to have commented, "It is always nice to be thought of."
At age 81, Parks was robbed and assaulted in her home in central Detroit on August 30, 1994. The assailant, Joseph Skipper, broke down the door but claimed he had chased away an intruder. He requested a reward and when Parks paid him, he demanded more. Parks refused and he attacked her. Hurt and badly shaken, Parks called a friend, who called the police. A neighborhood manhunt led to Skipper's capture and reported beating. Parks was treated at Detroit Receiving Hospital for facial injuries and swelling on the right side of her face. Parks said about the attack on her by the African-American man, "Many gains have been made ... But as you can see, at this time we still have a long way to go." Skipper was sentenced to 8 to 15 years and was transferred to prison in another state for his own safety.
In 1999, Parks filmed a cameo appearance for the television series Touched by an Angel. It was her last appearance on film; Parks began to suffer from health problems due to old age.
In 2002, Parks received an eviction notice from her $1,800 per month apartment for non-payment of rent. Parks was incapable of managing her own financial affairs by this time due to age-related physical and mental decline. Her rent was paid from a collection taken by Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit. When her rent became delinquent and her impending eviction was highly publicized in 2004, executives of the ownership company announced they had forgiven the back rent and would allow Parks, by then 91 and in extremely poor health, to live rent-free in the building for the remainder of her life. Elaine Steele, manager of the nonprofit Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute, told the newspaper that Parks got proper care, and that eviction notices were sent in error in 2002. Her heirs and various interest organizations alleged at the time that her financial affairs had been mismanaged.
Parks died of natural causes on October 24, 2005, at the age of 92, in her apartment on the east side of Detroit. She and her husband never had children and she outlived her only sibling. She was survived by her sister-in-law (Raymond's sister), 13 nieces and nephews and their families, and several cousins, most of them residents of Michigan or Alabama.
City officials in Montgomery and Detroit announced on October 27, 2005, that the front seats of their city buses would be reserved with black ribbons in honor of Parks until her funeral. Parks' coffin was flown to Montgomery and taken in a horse-drawn hearse to the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, where she lay in repose at the altar on October 29, 2005, dressed in the uniform of a church deaconess. A memorial service was held there the following morning. One of the speakers, United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said that if it had not been for Parks, she would probably have never become the Secretary of State. In the evening the casket was transported to Washington, D.C. and transported by a bus similar to the one in which she made her protest, to lie in honor in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
With her body and casket returned to Detroit, for two days, Parks lay in repose at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Her funeral service was seven hours long and was held on November 2, 2005, at the Greater Grace Temple Church in Detroit. After the service, an honor guard from the Michigan National Guard laid the U.S. flag over the casket and carried it to a horse-drawn hearse, which was intended to carry it, in daylight, to the cemetery. As the hearse passed the thousands of people who were viewing the procession, many clapped, cheered loudly and released white balloons. Parks was interred between her husband and mother at Detroit's Woodlawn Cemetery in the chapel's mausoleum. The chapel was renamed the Rosa L. Parks Freedom Chapel in her honor. Parks had previously prepared and placed a headstone on the selected location with the inscription "Rosa L. Parks, wife, 1913–."
In 2016, Parks's former residence in Detroit was threatened with demolition. A Berlin-based American artist, Ryan Mendoza, arranged to have the house disassembled, moved to his garden in Germany, and partly restored. It currently serves as a museum honoring Rosa Parks.
In the 1970s, Parks organized for the freedom of political prisoners in the United States, particularly cases involving issues of self-defense. She helped found the Detroit chapter of the Joann Little Defense Committee, and also worked in support of the Wilmington 10, the RNA 11, and Gary Tyler. Following national outcry around her case, Little succeeded in her defense that she used deadly force to resist sexual assault and was acquitted. Gary Tyler was finally released in April 2016 after 41 years in prison.