Vol. 5 Num 514 Mon. November 07, 2005  

Rosa Parks: Mother of American civil right movement

The 'mother' of the American Civil Right's movement, Rosa Park's bravery in defying racist authority to defend her personal rights and dignity helped transform a nation.

Rosa Parks, born as Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama to James McCauley, a carpenter, and Leona McCauley, a teacher. At the age of 11, she enrolled in the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, a private school founded by liberal-minded women from the northern United States. The school's philosophy of self-worth was consistent with Leona McCauley's advice to "take advantage of the opportunities, no matter how few they were."

After attending Alabama State Teachers College, the young Rosa settled in Montgomery, with her husband, Raymond Parks. The couple joined the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

It was when black people in the South lived in fear of breaking discriminatory Jim Crow laws designed to keep black Americans in an inferior position to the white population.

"I worked on numerous cases with the NAACP," Mrs. Parks recalled, "but we did not get the publicity. There were cases of flogging, peonage, murder, and rape. We did not seem to have too many successes. It was more a matter of trying to challenge the powers that be, and to let it be known that we did not wish to continue being second-class citizens."

As Rosa Parks understood, the civil rights revolution was not about material things, even if freedom might bring a better material life in its wake, as it tends to do. Her life was about something far more intense -- human liberty, the right to be treated equally before the law, the right to choose one's own path. In other words, human dignity.

Rosa Parks was no stranger to civil rights politics -- or to the brutal power of segregation -- in 1950s Alabama.

On December 1, 1955, as she was riding home from a long day at work, she was ordered by the bus driver to give up her seat on a public bus so a white man might sit. She refused and was arrested and fined $14. The day was the one which many mark as the start of the Civil Rights movement.

The bus incident led to forming the Montgomery Improvement Association, led by the young pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The association called for a boycott of the city-owned bus company. The boycott lasted 382 days and brought Mrs. Parks, Dr. King, and their cause to the attention of the world. A Supreme Court decision struck down the Montgomery ordinance under which Mrs. Parks had been fined, and outlawed racial segregation on public transportation.

However, she did not organise the boycott. The night of Parks' arrest, Jo Ann Robinson, an English professor at all-black Alabama State College and leader of the local Women's Political Council, stayed up until dawn writing and secretly mimeographing 35,000 leaflets calling for a one-day bus boycott the following Monday. She and her students distributed them clandestinely through the elementary and high schools.

The story of Rosa Parks -- which became, in turn, the story of the bus boycott, of Martin Luther King Jr., and of the modern civil rights movement -- is more complicated, and for precisely that reason still provides important lessons.

After a stunningly successful boycott of the city buses, the streets for blocks around the church were packed with thousands of Montgomery's black citizens listening to loudspeakers. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., 26 years old and chosen that afternoon because he hadn't yet made any local enemies, had 20 minutes to prepare his first public speech, the one that launched his heartbreakingly brief, incandescent career.

"We are not wrong in what we are doing," King told the crowd. "If we are wrong -- the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong -- God Almighty is wrong! If we are wrong -- Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer and never came down to Earth!"

He spoke from just a few notes, but years of study had prepared him to invoke moral, constitutional, and religious authority in one short paragraph. Like Abraham Lincoln, whose greatest speeches all appeal to religion and the constitution, King always voiced political matters in a religious and constitutional framework.

And the Civil Rights movement grew with Parks later earning the title of "mother" of the movement as she continued to quietly work for more equality.

The boycott continued, despite official opposition, for 382 days. It became the largest boycott in American history. The boycott was ended on December 21, 1956 when the Supreme Court ruled that segregation on city buses was unconstitutional, and Parks and King became national heroes. It was the beginning of a mass movement of non-violent social change, resulting in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Parks suffered consequences beyond jail and a fine. She was harassed and had trouble finding work in Alabama. Her life changed forever as she and her husband, Raymond, moved north to Detroit in 1957.

Moving to Detroit in 1957, she began working with Congressman John Conyers, and continued her involvement in the civil rights struggle, attending rallies and speaking at demonstrations. In 1980, she received the Martin Luther King, Jr. Non-violent Peace Prize.

The story of Rosa Parks - which became, in turn, the story of the bus boycott, of Martin Luther King Jr. and of the modern civil rights movement -- is more complicated, and for precisely that reason still provides important lessons.

As for Rosa Parks, she deserves to be remembered with Jefferson and Adams as a fearless woman who helped launch a revolution in the face of long odds and an immensely powerful opponent.

After the death of her husband in 1977, Mrs. Parks founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development. The Institute sponsors an annual summer program for teenagers called Pathways to Freedom. The young people tour the country in buses, under adult supervision, learning the history of their country and of the civil rights movement. President Clinton presented Rosa Parks with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996. She received a Congressional Gold Medal in 1999.

Mother Parks, as she is known in the black community, out of respect to her role in mothering the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, was a hero because she was the one who decided, even knowing the risks, the time had finally come to say "enough" to the sheer indignity of it all.