“My only concern was to get home after a hard day’s work.”
Rosa Parks was born Rosa Louise McCauley on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama. Her childhood brought her early experiences with racial discrimination and activism for racial equality. After her parents separated, Rosa’s mother moved the family to Pine Level, Alabama to live with her parents, Rose and Sylvester Edwards—both former slaves and strong advocates for racial equality; the family lived on the Edwards’ farm, where Rosa would spend her youth.
Taught to read by her mother at a young age, Rosa went on to attend a segregated, one-room school in Pine Level, Alabama, that often lacked adequate school supplies such as desks. African-American students were forced to walk to the 1st- through 6th-grade schoolhouse, while the city of Pine Level provided bus transportation as well as a new school building for white students.
On December 1, 1955, after a long day’s work at a Montgomery department store, where she worked as a seamstress, Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus for home. As the bus Rosa was riding continued on its route, it began to fill with white passengers. Eventually, the bus was full and the driver noticed that several white passengers were standing in the aisle. He stopped the bus and moved the sign separating the two sections back one row and asked four black passengers to give up their seats. Three complied, but Rosa refused and remained seated. The driver demanded, “Why don’t you stand up?” to which Rosa replied, “I don’t think I should have to stand up.” The driver called the police and had her arrested. Later, Rosa recalled that her refusal wasn’t because she was physically tired, but that she was tired of giving in. The police arrested Rosa at the scene and charged her with violation of Chapter 6, Section 11, of the Montgomery City Code. She was taken to police headquarters, where, later that night, she was released on bail.
When Rosa arrived at the courthouse for trial that morning with her attorney, Fred Gray, she was greeted by a bustling crowd of around 500 local supporters, who rooted her on. Following a 30-minute hearing, Rosa was found guilty of violating a local ordinance and was fined $10, as well as a $4 court fee. Inarguably the biggest event of the day, however, was what Rosa’s trial had triggered. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, as it came to be known, was a huge success. The city’s buses were, by and large, empty. Some people carpooled and others rode in African-American-operated cabs, but most of the estimated 40,000 African-American commuters living in the city at the time had opted to walk to work that day—some as far as 20 miles.
With the transit company and downtown businesses suffering financial loss and the legal system ruling against them, the city of Montgomery had no choice but to lift its enforcement of segregation on public buses, and the boycott officially ended on December 20, 1956. The combination of legal action, backed by the unrelenting determination of the African-American community, made the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott one of the largest and most successful mass movements against racial segregation in history.
Although she had become a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks suffered hardship in the months following her arrest in Montgomery and the subsequent boycott. She lost her department store job and her husband was fired after his boss forbade him to talk about his wife or their legal case. Unable to find work, they eventually left Montgomery; the couple, along with Rosa’s mother, moved to Detroit, Michigan. There, Rosa made a new life for herself, working as a secretary and receptionist in U.S. Representative John Conyer’s congressional office. She also served on the board of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
On October 24, 2005, at the age of 92, Rosa Parks quietly died in her apartment in Detroit, Michigan. She had been diagnosed the previous year with progressive dementia. Her death was marked by several memorial services, among them lying in state at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.