Rosa Parks, Champion for Human Rights

The radical life story often left untold.

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, 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.”

The women’s political council

In 1946, Mary Fair Burkes, a member of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where the radical civil rights activist Vernon Johns was minister, created the Women’s Political Council. (WPC). Many of the WPC Members were women faculty at Alabama State College, as was Burkes herself. Burkes had been attacked by a “club wielding police officer.” Many of the women of the WPC had stories of brutal racial treatment by Montgomery’s police, bus drivers, and white citizens. The WPC eventually had over 300 women members, according to journalist Juan Williams.

Other inequalities blacks experienced while riding the bus included a requirement that “negro” passengers pay at the front of the bus and then go to the back and re-board

In 1950, Burkes turned the leadership of the WPC over to Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, a colleague at Alabama State College. Robinson had also been the victim of a vicious verbal attack by a Montgomery bus driver, who stood over her and pulled his arm back as if to strike her. Stumbling off the bus, Jo Ann Robinson was crying and recalls being “inundated” by “waves of humiliation.”

In her book about the bus boycott, Robinson describes daily and brutal insults against the black citizens of Montgomery, including physical beatings, assaults, wrongful arrests for disorderly conduct, verbal degradation with obscene language, financial fines, and the death by shooting of Rosa Parks’ neighbor, a veteran known as Brooks. Other inequalities blacks experienced while riding the bus included limitations on service and a requirement that “negro” passengers pay at the front of the bus and then go to the back and re-board, leading to injuries or a slammed door, even though the rider had paid.

Robinson points out the unequal racial treatment on Montgomery buses, which led to the abuse and arrest of Rosa Parks and many others:

The front ten double seats on each bus (out of a total seating for thirty-six) were reserved for whites, whether there were enough whites riding the bus to occupy them or not. Even when no whites were aboard, those seats were reserved, just in case one or two did ride. In many instances black riders had to stand over those empty seats. Since about 70 percent of all bus patrons were black, especially on certain buses and in certain areas, it seemed to many riders that the reservation of seats was unnecessary.

The day-to-day injustices and emotional trauma on Montgomery buses led to community conflict, including domestic violence, juvenile delinquency, and dependency abuses. Jo Ann Robinson recalls that, “In 1956, the superintendent of a local hospital, which customarily treated many weekend fight victims, told a reporter that since the boycott began, the hospital had had fewer patients.”

The WPC, led by Robinson, received more than 30 complaints against the Montgomery City Lines bus company, with some going as far back as 1953.

From 1950 to 1955, Robinson worked with other activist women, including A.W. West, N.W. Burkes, J.E. Pierce, Georgia Gilmore, Edwyna Marketta, Ella Mae Stovell, Lettie M. Anderson, Horace Burton, Ruby Hall, and Ella Mae Henderson. These were only some of those who took up the cause of abuses on the city’s buses, in addition to the “shameful and deplorable one-sidedness” of the city’s segregated parks and recreation systems. As Mary Fair Burkes pointed out, “We were not fighting segregation, as much as abuses of Negroes.”

In May 21, 1954, Robinson sent a letter to Mayor W.A. “Tacky” Gayle, stating a warning. Since “three-fourths of the riders of these public conveyances are Negros,” she wrote, “if Negros did not patronize them, [the buses] could not possibly operate. More and more our people are already arranging with neighbors and friends to ride to keep from being insulted and humiliated by bus drivers.”

While neither Colvin nor Smith received the publicity that Rosa Parks did, both are now recognized in history as champions of change.

In March 1955, Robinson writes, the WPC was brought into public action after Claudette Colvin, a 10th-grader at Booker T. Washington High School, was physically removed, dragged, and pushed, then arrested from a Montgomery bus by a Montgomery police officer, who called the teenager a “black whore.”

The community responded to Claudette Colvin’s arrest by organizing the Citizen’s Coordinating Committee. After meeting with the police commission and the manager of the bus company, nothing was done, though the committee was able to show dozens of complaints filed by citizens with the WPC and other organizations. Claudette Colvin was found guilty of assault and battery and of violating state segregation laws. She was sentenced to “indefinite probation” and declared a juvenile delinquent.

In October 1955, Louise Smith, an eighteen-year-old maid, refused to move to the colored section. “I am not going to move,” she said, “I got the privilege to sit here like anybody else.” Though the NAACP met with her family through E. D. Nixon and WPC, again the decision was made not to make a constitutional challenge with Ms. Smith as the lead Plaintiff.

The cases of Claudette Colvin and Louise Smith were eventually selected as part of a class action lawsuit, which later formed the basis of the U.S Supreme Court’s ruling that struck down Montgomery’s segregations laws. While neither Colvin nor Smith received the publicity that Rosa Parks did while these events were occurring, both are now recognized in history as champions of change. The intense work around the Colvin and Smith cases primed Montgomery and the world for the visionary organizing of the 13-month bus boycott that would begin months later, on December 1, 1955.

The courage of Rosa Parks’ arrest

On December 1, 1955, a distracted Rosa Parks got on the Cleveland Avenue bus with James F. Blake, the same operator who had mistreated her in 1943. Parks knew well the risk she took in protesting on the bus. On August 12, 1950, Brooks, an African-American veteran of World War II and neighbor of the Parks family, tried to board a bus, but the bus driver C.L. Hood alleged he was too drunk to ride. When Brooks protested, the bus driver waved down a police officer, M.E. Mills, while pushing Brooks off the bus. As Brooks struggled to get up, the police officer shot him dead. The officer was cleared of all wrongdoing.

“I did not want to be continually humiliated over something I had no control over: the color of my skin.”

When Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, she had twelve years of her NAACP investigator’s notes on nearly every case of racial brutality in and around Montgomery. There was no way to be without fear, but she “held herself steady” as the arrest occurred.

Learning of the arrest, the WPC sprang into action. Jo Ann Robinson and two of her student assistants met in the basement of Alabama State University and copied, cut, and bundled 52,500 flyers, which read, in part:

Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown in jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus for a white person to sit down. It is the second time since the Claudette Colvin case that a Negro woman has been arrested for the same thing. This has to be stopped. Negroes have rights, too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses, they could not operate. Three-fourths of the riders are Negroes, yet we are arrested, or have to stand over empty seats. If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or your daughter or mother. This woman’s case will come up on Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don’t ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday … Please stay off all buses Monday.

Rosa Parks’ arrest became a transformative moment in human history.

“I was determined to achieve the total freedom that our history lessons taught us we were entitled to, no matter what the sacrifice,” she recalled in her autobiography. “When I declined to give up my seat, it was not that day, or bus, in particular. I just wanted to be free like everybody else. I did not want to be continually humiliated over something I had no control over: the color of my skin.”

By the evening that day, Rosa Parks, Raymond Parks, her attorneys Fred Gray and Clifford Durr, the NAACP’s E.D Nixon, and Virginia Durr were all brainstorming. They decided that Rosa Parks would challenge, with courage in the face of her own fears, Montgomery’s bus segregation ordinance on constitutional grounds. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund would support the suit, if necessary. With reason, Raymond Parks was fearful of his wife taking such a prominent role in a social justice movement.

History records a mass mobilization of community forces around the Montgomery bus boycott. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was born, a coalition of civil rights organizations, churches, labor, WPC, NAACP, and black bus-riding citizens. Women held down the day-to-day work of the MIA, though most of the officers were prominent men, including the elected president, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Stalwarts of the MIA included Hazel Gregory, Maude Ballou, Erna Dungy, and Martha Johnson, to name just a few. White supporters Virginia Durr and Clara Hard Rutledge built support for the bus boycott with Montgomery’s white citizens.

The backbone of the ridership consisted of low-income domestic workers, cooks, nurses, and maids. Without their support and organizational involvement, the bus boycott could not have been a success.

The WPC members became a part of the MIA as well, with Jo Ann Robinson starting a newsletter for the new group, which proved a crucial organizing tool and became part of the success of this people’s movement.

The road to victory 

The MIA also organized an alternative transportation system, which was one of the keys to the bus boycott’s success. The boycott affected the entire city, and the MIA tried to cover every need. With few exceptions, the rides were free. However, a fee was charged for rides to or from areas beyond the normal limits of the city bus lines. According to Robinson’s book, each day throughout the boycott some 325 private cars picked up passengers from 43 dispatch stations and 42 pickup stations.

Though the MIA first sought to negotiate with the city leaders, it became clear no compromise could be reached with them. Indeed, the White Citizens Council grew along with the boycott, employing tactics of violence and arrest of black passengers waiting for a drive to their destination. Violence was also targeted at the leaders of the MIA, including the firebombing of the homes of Dr. King and E.D. Nixon. Others received repeated threats.

One hundred and fifteen of the boycott leaders were arrested—including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jo Ann Robinson, based on the decision of a grand jury of seventeen whites on February 21, 1956. The arrests were reversed only after an appeal to a three-judge federal court in June  1956.

Yet the catalyst for change had already occurred.

On December 17, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Montgomery’s unequal busing laws unconstitutional in Browder v Gayle. But Montgomery and its leadership, intransigent in its refusal to give up its unequal laws, refused to follow the Court’s edict until federal marshals enforced it on December 20, 1956.

Rosa L. Parks and thousands of other citizens made the Montgomery Bus boycott a profound example of a successful people’s movement.


Alice B. Jennings
Grace Lee Boggs
Grace Lee Boggs was an activist for more than 60 years, as well as an author, philosopher, feminist, and revolutionary. Her books include The Next American Revolution and Living for Change.
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