Monday, February 24, 2014

Rosa Parks: The Spark of Revolution

Rosa Parks: The Spark of Revolution

Rosa Parks was born Rosa Louise McCauley on February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama to Leona and James McCauley. She grew up on a farm with her mother, her brother, and her maternal grandparents, Rose and Sylvester Edwards. Both were former slaves and strong advocates for racial equality. She was no stranger to discrimination herself; as she once saw her grandfather standing in front of their house with a shotgun while Klan members marched down their street. In elementary school, she had to walk to school while school buses took white students to their new school. "I'd see the bus pass every day, but to me, that was a way of life; we had no choice but to accept what was the custom. The bus was among the first ways I realized there was a black world and a white world," said Mrs. Parks. Her secondary school, Montgomery's Industrial School for Girls, was burned down twice by arsonists. Parks began attending the Industrial School at age eleven, but left school in 11th grade to tend to her sick grandmother and mother. She never returned to her studies.

Instead, she began to work at a t-shirt factory in Montgomery, and shortly after, she met and married Raymond Parks. He was a barber and an active member of the NAACP. She joined the organization in December of 1943 and became active in the Civil Rights Movement. Mrs. Parks was elected secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and continued in her position until 1957.  As secretary she worked on numerous cases with the NAACP, including investigating the gang-rape of Recy Taylor, and the Scottsboro Boys case, in which nine black teenagers were framed of rape by an all-white jury and nearly lynched.

In 1944, Mrs. Parks held a job at Maxwell Air Force base, where she first experienced life without racial segregation, as the base did not permit racial segregation because it was federal property. She would later say that this experience had opened her eyes to see how the world could really be. Mrs. Parks worked as a housekeeper and a seamstress for Clifford and Virginia Durr on the base. They were a politically liberal white couple who encouraged and helped sponsor her to attend the Highlander Folk School, a training center for activists, where she was able to learn about utilizing civil disobedience for worker's rights and racial justice.

At the time of her famous refusal to give up her bus seat, in December 1955, bus drivers in Montgomery had become accustomed to requiring black passengers to give up their seats to white passengers when no other seats were available. Despite the fact that the city's bus ordinance did not give them specific authority to demand a passenger to give up a seat, they would routinely refuse service to those that did not comply, and often called the police to have them removed. As the bus filled with white passengers, the driver noticed that some white passengers were standing in the aisles. Because Mrs. Parks was seated in the front row of the black section, she was asked to stand and give up her seat. When asked "Why don't you stand up?" Rosa replied, "I don't think I should have to stand up."  She was arrested. People have assumed that her refusal was because she was physically tired; but she would later state that that she was simply tired of giving in. This was no coincidence, it was a thoroughly conscious act of protest.

Despite similar protests happening across the city, Mrs. Parks refusal became the spark for the boycott of Montgomery's city buses.  E.D. Nixon, the head of the local chapter of the NAACP, began to formulate plans to expand the boycott, placing ads in local papers, and printing and distributing handbills in black neighborhoods. Thus began the Civil Rights movement in earnest.

Mrs. Parks herself, however, suffered a great deal of hardship in the time following her arrest. She and her husband had received death threats, lost their jobs and apartment, and eventually had to move from Montgomery to Detroit to live with Mrs. Park's mother. There she began work as a secretary and receptionist in the office of US Representative John Conyer, and also served on the board of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

She also founded the Rosa & Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development in 1987. This organization educates young people about important civil rights and Underground Railroad sites throughout the country by providing "Pathways to Freedom" bus tours. In 1992, she published her autobiography, Rosa Parks: My Story, and in 1995 she published Quiet Strength, which focuses on her faith and the role that it played in her work and her life as a whole.

Mrs. Parks received many awards, accolades, and distinctions in her lifetime, including the Spingarn Medal, the Martin Luther King Jr. Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and was named on TIME's list of "20 Most Influential People of the 20th Century."
  Rosa Parks died at the age of 92 in Detroit. There were many memorial services in her honor, including lying in state at the United States Capitol.

"People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day...No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in."
  - Rosa Parks

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