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Rosa Parks, Champion for Human Rights

On Rosa Parks’ 100th birthday, she’s broadly celebrated and even has a stamp bearing her image. But her radical life story is too often left untold.

Rosa Parks stamp

The new Rosa Parks stamp. Photo by Joe Seer / Shutterstock.com

Rosa Parks, whom the U.S. Congress called "the first lady of civil rights", and "the mother of the freedom movement," was born 100 years ago today, on February 4, 1913, to James and Leona Edwards McCauley. To celebrate the centennial of her birth, the United States Postal Service will unveil a stamp honoring her legacy.

Many accounts of Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the rear of the bus on December 1, 1955, focus on her being tired or her feet hurting. Too few review the life that had made her tired of injustice.

As a young child living with her mother and grandparents in Pine Level, Ala., Rosa sat at the feet of her grandfather, Sylvester Edwards, who with a shotgun in his lap guarded the family at night from the Ku Klux Klan. According to a biography of Parks by Douglas Brinkley, Sylvester Edwards was a fearless “race man,” an adherent to the beliefs of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.

Rosa Parks recalls many black soldiers returning to the South after World War I, expecting respect and equality:

Whites didn’t like blacks having that kind of attitude, so they started doing all kinds of violent things to black people to remind them that they didn’t have any rights…I heard a lot about black people being found dead and nobody knew what happened. Other people would just pick them up and bury them.
“I gained strength to persevere in my work for freedom, not just for blacks, but all oppressed people.”

In 1931, Rosa met Raymond Parks in Montgomery, Ala. Parks, a barber, was a charter member of the Montgomery NAACP, as fearless as Rosa Parks’ grandfather. The young couple married in 1932 and became involved in the Scottsboro Defense. The case contested the death sentences of nine African-American boys and men, none over the age of 20, accused of raping two white females. The meetings were held secretly because of the great risk of harm to those who protested the death sentences. Though it took decades to release the last of the Scottsboro nine, Rosa and Raymond Parks continued to be active in the movement. The last Scottsboro prisoner was released in 1950.

Voting rights and women’s rights work

Rosa and Raymond Parks were involved in organizing Voter League meetings, and encouraged their friends and neighbors to register to vote. Like the Scottsboro meetings, these meetings were held secretly because of violence aimed at activists. Rosa Parks was required to take the qualifying exam to vote three times because of the racial discrimination aimed at keeping the voter rolls “lily-white.” In her autobiography, My Story, Parks states had she not “passed” the test to vote the fourth time, she planned to “bring suit against the voter registration board.”

Rosa Parks continued her NAACP investigations through the 1940s and 50s, at great risk to her own life.

By 1943, Rosa Parks was the secretary of the NAACP of Montgomery. In that role, she took statements of people who were victims of sexualized violence and researched their cases. In 1944 she went to Abbeville, Ala., where she investigated the brutal rape of Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old mother and wife. Taylor was abducted and raped by six white men while coming home from church with two other church members. According to author Danielle McGuire, police authorities ordered Parks to leave while she was investigating the crime at Taylor’s home.

The courage of Rosa Parks and many others, including her friend Johnnie Carr, was shown in continuing this work, where those known to be involved received multiple death threats. Mrs. Taylor’s home was firebombed by white vigilantes and she had to move out. The organizational structure built during the Recy Taylor case was groundwork for the Women’s Political Council (WPC) and the Montgomery Improvement Association. Rosa Parks continued her NAACP investigations through the 1940s and 50s, at great risk to her own life.

Parks first met the bus driver James F. Blake in 1943, according to McGuire. Blake was known as a “vicious bigot” who called black women passengers “bitches” and “coons.” In 1943, Parks was told by Blake to put her money in the meter, then get off the bus and get back on using the back door. When Parks said she did not “see the need of getting off and getting back on,” Blake grabbed her by her coat sleeve and pulled her toward the door. Parks advised Blake that “he better not hit her.” As Parks was about to leave the bus, she intentionally dropped her purse and sat down. This act enraged Blake and he told her, “Get off my bus!” Parks got off the bus, vowing never to ride again. Twelve years later, on December 1, 1955, Parks, distracted, got on the bus with Blake again. On that day, she was arrested and the Montgomery Bus Boycott was born.

White women activists in Montgomery were involved with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Virginia Durr, a prominent white liberal and eventual employer of Parks, who was an excellent seamstress, mentored Parks by encouraging her to attend the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn. Though first developed to address oppressed workers in the Appalachian mountains, by the 1950s the school had evolved into a training ground for civil rights activists. The summer before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Parks attended a workshop there.

“At Highlander,” Parks recalls, “I found out for the first time in my adult life, that this could be a unified society, that there was such a thing as people of different races and backgrounds meeting together in workshops and living together in peace and harmony. It was a place I was very reluctant to leave. I gained strength there to persevere in my work for freedom, not just for blacks, but all oppressed people.”

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