This week’s Adventure in Feministory takes us to Montgomery, Alabama, in December of 1955. While we’re there, we’re going to be spending some time with a 42-year-old department store seamstress named Rosa Parks. Perhaps you’ve heard of her? Were she alive, the first lady of American Civil Rights would turn 98 this Friday. It’s not every day Congress passes an act bestowing a gold medal on a lady for “her contributions to the nation,” but they did for Parks, in 1999. Because the Happy Birthday song is trademarked, let’s take a look back at Parks’s extraordinary life and celebrate her, Feministory-style.
Rosa Louise McCauley was born in 1913 in a city already renowned for African American achievement: Tuskegee, Alabama, home of the Tuskegee Institute. Started by a former slave and former slave owner, the school was formed in hopes of educating freed slaves and encouraging upward mobility. So, inasmuch as a person is influenced by their hometown, Parks was born primed for a future in Civil Rights. She was educated all over Alabama, receiving her diploma after marrying Raymond Parks in 1932. They became involved together in the Montgomery, AL chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), where she was still working in 1955. When she famously remained seated on a segregated bus in Montgomery on December 1, 1955, Parks was 42 years old, was working as a seamstress at a local department store, and was the Secretary of her local NAACP chapter. She lost her job at the department store after being arrested (how embarrassing for you, Montgomery Fair).
The story is American legend by now: Parks was asked to move to make way for a white (male) bus passenger, and she refused. She was arrested, and a citywide boycott of the Montgomery Bus system ensued four days later. The leader of said boycott was Martin Luther King, Jr., with whom Parks would work until his death in 1968. But here is some information you might not know. Parks was not the first to stage transportation-level civil disobedience, but it was her action that spurred on the boycott that would in turn incite nationwide protest and reform. In fact, Parks was involved in raising money for the defense of Claudette Colvin, a predecessor in protest whom we’ve covered here at Bitch, but Colvin, 15, was pregnant at the time and thus deemed an unfit figurehead for the Civil Rights Movement (nope, not even Rosa Parks had perfect judgment). She was also not, as is part of popular lore, just a tired woman who didn’t want to stand. She was an active member of the growing movement for Black rights, and she was staging an active protest. From her autobiography, My Story:
People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.
Another beauty of a quote, describing what Parks felt as James Blake, the bus driver, approached her: “I felt determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.” It is perhaps more romantic to think of a little, tired old lady being harassed by an angry bus driver, but I take more heart knowing that Parks set out to protest a system (literally, a city-wide bus system), and as a direct result of her action, the system changed.
After leaving Montgomery in the late 50s, Parks continued work as a seamstress, and in 1964 became a Deaconess in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She worked for Congressman John Conyers in Detroit, and later became a member of the Board of Advocates for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (!!!). Just prior to her death, as mentioned above, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor (N.B. She received her award five years before MLK and his wife, Coretta Scott King). When she died in 2005, Parks became the first woman and second African American to lie in state at the United States Capitol Building.
The foundation she founded after her husband’s death, the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, is still open today. The Institute operates a summer program called “Pathways to Freedom” that takes teenagers on bus tours, teaching them the history the American Civil Rights Movement.
Parks’s legacy is one that has been sewn into daily life in this country. No American citizen operates apart from her civic contributions. She was an extraordinary woman who insisted throughout her life that anyone could have done what she did. No, she wasn’t the first to take action, and yes, if she hadn’t sparked a bus boycott someone else would have eventually. But she did, and she lived as proof that any one citizen can be the deciding factor in a revolution.