Rosa Louise Parks was an extraordinary African American civil rights activist whose heroic actions sparked the beginning of the monumental civil rights movement within the United States of America.
Rosa Parks firmly stood up for what she believed and it was time for her to show the world who she was and what she believed in. Rosa was born on February 4th, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama. Every since she was a little girl, her mother knew that God had a special purpose for her. She was raised by her mother because her father was never around. She recalled that he would stay several days and then leave again. She never saw him any more until she was an adult and married (Brinkley 21). She lived with her mother and brother in a small house. Her mother was a school teacher who sometimes traveled out of state to teach in different schools and in black churches. Rosa was also raised in part by her grandparents who lived nearby.
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Growing up was hard for Rosa. It is upsetting to think that innocent children lives were in danger, because of the members of the Ku Klux Klan. This was a secret society that originated in southern states. Its purpose was to reassert white supremacy by the means of terrorism. Klan members would parade up and down the streets in front of Rosa’s home. They never attacked her family, but she felt the violence of white supremacy at a very young age (Brinkley 25).
Rosa moved to Montgomery, Alabama at the age of eleven and her mom enrolled her at Montgomery Industrial school for girls. All of the teachers at this school were white, while the student body of two hundred and thirty to three hundred were entirely black. However she dropped out of school at the age of sixteen to care for both her grandmother, who died soon after, and then for her ailing mother. She was practically taking care of herself as well as her family, while the pressures of white supremacy, still were in full effect (Encarta 1).
Rosa also grew up under a strict racist law system called the Jim Crow Law. The Jim Crow law system was adopted in 1875. This law was named after a minstrel show character, who was an old, crippled, black slave who embodied a negative stereotype for African Americans. It was the official system of racial segregation that spread across the south after the Civil War. Segregation was the separation of the races in every sphere of life to achieve white supremacy. African Americans and whites were legally separated on streetcars, trains, steamboats, and every other form of public transportation as well as schools, hospitals, restaurants, hotels and even drinking fountains. These laws put "black" and "white" signs on every public facility. These signs historians say were public symbols of and constant reminders of black rejection (Brinkley 32).
In the 1896 Supreme Court case "Plessy V. Ferguson"the court authorized separate but equal facilities for blacks and whites which were in reality were not equal. African Americans throughout the south started organizing pro integration protest rallies which promoted bringing together whites and blacks in society, but these rallies had no effect on society (Brinkley 32).
The Jim Crow trolley demanded blacks enter in the back of the trolley and they had to stay there. Some of the public buses between Tuskegee and Montgomery refused to let "colored people" inside. African Americans had to sit on top of the luggage no matter what the weather was like. Montgomery, which boasted the first electric trolley system in the country, was faced with a boycott in August of 1900. African Americans were urged to walk and not ride in show of solidarity against the cities unfairness to its paying passengers. This boycott lasted five weeks and it cost the trolley operator twenty five percent of its business. Eventually the company ended streetcar segregation in the city in the 1920’s, but it was short lived in part because of the Klan’s activities. This largely forgotten boycott in civil rights history was an important event that preceded the 1955 Montgomery boycott that would bring Rosa parks international recognition. Rosa said, " I had heard stories about the 1900 boycott, and I thought about it sometimes when the segregated trolley passed by. It saddened me to think how African Americans took one step forward and then two steps back" (Brinkley32).
In 1932 at the age of nineteen Rosa married Raymond Parks who was a twenty nine year old barber. She received her high school diploma the following year and supported the family by sewing and other jobs. Rosa remembered that when it came to voting African Americans had major disadvantages. In 1937 a group of poor voters brought a constitutional challenge against the poll tax which was a fee charged across the south for exercising the right to vote. The group lost the challenge and the Supreme Court upheld the poll tax as constitutional. If a person was poor with no extra money, which most blacks in Alabama were, they could not vote. Another obstacle was literacy tests which were tests on reading and writing and if a person failed it they could not vote. She tried to register to vote although she did not succeed until her third time. She was forced to take a literacy test, which she passed and she also had to pay the poll tax of $ 16.50.
In 1945 Rosa became a secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP. This was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It was an organization founded to improve the conditions for African Americans in the United States (Encarta 2).
The southern bus systems all seemed to follow the same set of bus rules. In Montgomery for example all the city buses had thirty-six seats. The first ten seats were always reserved for whites and the ten seats farthest to the back were unofficially designed for the blacks to use. The sixteen seats in the middle individual bus drivers imposed there own segregation rules on and enforced them with the threat of pistols they carried. Many drivers enhanced the degrading of blacks by making them pay their fares in the front of the bus, and then they had to get off and go all the way around to the back of the bus to board. It was a form of everyday humiliation in Montgomery. Rosa said, " Some bus drivers were meaner than others. Not all of them were hateful, but segregation is vicious and to my mind there was no way you could make segregation decent, or nice, or acceptable"(Brinkley 57).
One bus driver that stood out in Rosa’s mind was a man named James Blake. He was a major bigot who treated everyone that was black badly especially black women. He made blacks pay in the front and then as they walked outside to the back of the bus, he would leave them with a face full of exhaust as he raced off. One afternoon Rosa boarded through the front door of Blake’s bus, because the back was filled with people. Blake demanded that she exit the bus and get back on through the back door. She told him that she did not see the need to get off and back on again. He was infuriated with her and told her to get off his bus. Parks engaged in an act of passive resistance, named by Leo Tolstoy and embraced by Mahatma Gandhi, which was resistance by a nonviolent method. This method she learned in Matthew 5:39 of the Bible where Jesus taught that if someone strikes you on one cheek, you should turn the other cheek. She not only refused to ride on Blakes Bus, but avoided them for the next twelve years. She walked wherever she went even in the rain rather than suffer further injustice. However in 1955 Rosa has another incident with a Montgomery bus that left the bus company in an uproar (Brinkley58).
On December 1st 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. She went on the bus and she walked in the back of where white people were sitting. The bus was extremely crowded that day. On the second or third stop some white people came on the bus and there was one white man standing. When the driver noticed the man standing, he told her to get up. Rosa told him she was not moving from the seat and he threatened to have her arrested. She said that he may do that and he did. Two policemen came on the bus and placed her under arrest. The public responded to her arrest as soon as it was announced. It was put in the paper and Mr. E.D. Nixon, who was the legal redress chairman of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, made phone calls to a number of ministers. There was a public meeting at Dexter Avenue Baptist church, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the pastor. The Montgomery Improvement Association was formed and it was led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Rosa said, "When she met Martin Luther King Jr. she was very impressed with his delivery as a speaker and by his leadership. He seemed to be a genuine and very concerned person, who she thought was a real, true Christian (Brinkley 207).
Rosa’s trial was on December 5th and the court found her guilty. Her lawyers’ Fred Gray and Charles Langford filed an appeal, and she was later fined $10.00 plus $4.00 in court expenses (Brinkley 219).
The Montgomery Improvement Association called for a boycott of the city owned bus company. It urged people to walk or ride with people in cars rather than take public transportation which was primarily the bus. Many people heard about the Rosa Parks event and a large number of people participated in not riding the bus. During the boycott Rosa went to many different city meeting urging people to participate in the boycott. She told people all about her incident on the bus and encouraged people join her in boycott. Rosa was determined to put a stop to the racist system which some Americans had accepted. The boycott lasted 382 and captured the nations’ attention. The Supreme Court eventually struck down the Montgomery ordinance under which Rosa Parks was fined, and outlawed racial segregation on public transportation (Smithsonian 1).
However, Rosa and her husband Raymond both lost their jobs and suffered repeated harassment and threats in July of 1957. The last hateful message which they received, pushed Raymond Parks into a near suicidal despair, that scared Rosa more than the death threat itself. Soon after this terrible incident Raymond and Rosa moved to Detroit, where Rosa served on the staff of US Representative John Conyers. The Southern Christian Leadership Council established an annual Rosa Parks Freedom Award in her honor. After the death of her husband, she founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for self development. This institute sponsors an annual summer program for teenagers called Capital Pathways to Capital Freedom. In this program young people tour the country in busses, under adult supervision and learn the history of their country and the Civil Rights Movement. This institute provides scholarships and guidance for young blacks (Encarta 2).
Rosa Parks received numerous awards and tributes including the NAACP’s highest honor, the Spinarn Medal in 1970 and prestigious Martin Luther Jr. award in 1980. Cleveland Avenue in the city of Montgomery was renamed Rosa Parks Boulevard in 1965. President Bill Clinton in 1996 awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest honor that the U.S. government can give to a civilian. In 1999 she received the Congressional Gold Medal from the US Congress (Encarta 2).
Rosa Parks became known as the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement and her life has impacted the world tremendously. Her actions have helped us believe in ourselves and our faith in God, showing us that we can overcome any difficult obstacle that we may face.
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