Civil rights leader Rosa Parks was honoured with a commemorative statue in the US Capitol building in Washington DC on Wednesday 27 February 2013.
Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a segregated Alabama bus for a white passenger in 1955 sparked a boycott that galvanised the movement for equal rights for Black people in Montgomery and across the United States.
Rosa Park’s early life
Born Rosa Louise McCauley on 4 February 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama, her parents, James and Leona McCauley, separated when Rosa was two. Rosa’s mother moved the family to Pine Level, Alabama, to live with her parents, Rose and Sylvester Edwards on their farm. Both of Parks’ grandparents were former slaves who advocated for racial equality.
Rosa’s childhood brought her early experiences with racial discrimination and activism for racial equality. The Ku Klux Klan were a constant threat, burning Black schools and churches and lynching Black people. Rosa’s grandfather would often keep watch at night, rifle in hand, awaiting a mob of violent white men. In one experience, Rosa recalls her grandfather standing in front of their house with a shotgun while Ku Klux Klan members marched down the street.
Rosa’s mother was a teacher, and the family valued education. She taught Rosa to read at a young age. Parks attended a segregated, one-room school in Pine Level, Alabama, that lacked adequate school supplies such as desks. Black students were forced to walk to the schoolhouse, while the city of Pine Level provided bus transportation as well as a new school building for white students.
At the age of 11 she enrolled in the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls. This was a private school founded by liberal-minded women from the northern United States. Here Black girls were taught regular school subjects alongside domestic skills. She went on to attend a Black junior high school for 9th grade and a Black teacher’s college for 10th and part of 11th grade.
Rosa left at 16, early in 11th grade, because she needed to care for her dying grandmother and, her soon afterwards, her chronically ill mother. To make ends meet she started cleaning the homes of white people.
In 1932, at age 19, Parks met and married Raymond Parks, a self-educated man 10 years her senior who worked as a barber and was a long-time member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Raymond encouraged her to return to high school and in 1933 she earned her high school degree. In 1943 she became actively involved in civil rights issues by joining the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. She served as its secretary until 1956.
Montgomery was a city governed by Jim Crow (segregation) laws which legalised racial segregation. Black people could attend only certain schools, which were often inferior, could only drink from specified water fountains and could borrow books only from the “Black” library, among other restrictions.
Montgomery bus incident
On Thursday, 1 December 1955, 42-year-old Rosa Parks was riding a crowded Montgomery city bus when the driver, after noticing that there were white passengers standing in the aisle, asked Parks and other Black passengers to give up their seats and stand. Three of the passengers left their seats, but Parks refused.
She was subsequently arrested and fined $10 for the offense and $4 for court costs, neither of which she paid. She later recalled that her refusal wasn’t because she was physically tired, but that she was tired of giving in.
Montgomery NAACP chapter president E D Nixon offered to help Rosa appeal the conviction and consequently challenge legal segregation in Alabama. Both Parks and Nixon knew that they were opening themselves up for harassment and death threats, but they also knew that the case had the potential to spark national outrage.
The bus incident led to the formation of 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 381 days and brought Rosa Parks, Dr King, and their cause to the attention of the world. A Supreme Court decision struck down the Montgomery ordinance under which Parks had been fined, and outlawed racial segregation on public transportation.
Despite the boycott’s successful end, the Parks family still faced death threats and could not find steady work. In August 1957, they left Montgomery for Detroit, where her brother and cousins lived.
Rosa Parks was not the first Black woman to refuse to give up her bus seat for a white person—15-year-old Claudette Colvin had been arrested for the same offence nine months earlier, and dozens of other Black women had preceded them in the history of segregated public transit including Ida B Wells who refused to give up her seat on the train for a white person.
US leaders honour civil rights activist Rosa Parks with statue
Rosa Parks’ commemorative statue is a part of the Capitol Art Collection which hosts 180 pieces of art; the statue will stand among nine other females featured in the National Statuary Hall Collection. Parks is the first black woman to be honoured.
Unlike nearby statues of men standing, the one of Parks shows her seated – the position of quiet resistance that led to her arrest.
President Barack Obama joined congressional leaders from both political parties to unveil the statue of Parks, who died in 2005 at age 92.
“We celebrate a seamstress, slight in stature but mighty in courage,” Obama said in his remarks.
“She lived a life of activism, but also a life of dignity and grace. And in a single moment, with the simplest of gestures, she helped change America – and change the world,” he said.
“Today, she takes her rightful place among those who’ve shaped this nation’s course.”