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Rosa Parks: An Activist’s Life

Introduction

You have likely learned about Rosa Parks: the seamstress from Alabama who was tired and refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. US history books chronicle this act of bravery against segregation, but the story they tell is incomplete and inaccurate.

Here’s Why

Textbooks paint her act of rebellion as pure happenstance, but it wasn't. It was planned. Rosa Parks was more than an incidental participant in the Civil Rights Movement. She was an organizer, activist, and leader in the fight for racial equality. 

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks spent her life working towards civil rights for the Black community. She was trained in civil disobedience and used her voice and position in her community to lead the charge towards civil rights. Her life has been diminished to one act, but Rosa Parks' activism was constant throughout her life. 

The History

Rosa started her work as an activist with her husband, Raymond, who was an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP. Her first actions with the group helped the Scottsboro Boys, a group of nine black teens wrongly accused of rape and sentenced to death. After this case, Rosa got more involved in the Montgomery NAACP chapter, becoming its secretary. There, she met activist E.D. Nixon. The duo worked together to transform their chapter to be more activism-focused. Rosa restarted the youth branch and worked with teenagers to fight oppression. At the same time, she and E.D. Nixon fought inequalities in the criminal justice system and helped African Americans find legal representation. Rosa started recording stories of unfair treatment and quickly became known as the point of contact for Black people wronged by the justice system. 

Rosa's next step as an activist came when she attended the Highlander Folk School, a social justice training program that taught nonviolent resistance tactics and community organizing practices. Many civil rights groups adopted the school's curriculum, including Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. 

Rosa's most famous act of protest was not the first time bus segregation was challenged. Throughout the 40s and 50s, Black Americans had refused to give in to mistreatment and were arrested and killed in response. Rosa helped several such victims pursue legal counsel with E.D., and she herself had been the target of bus drivers' bigotry before. The Black leaders in Montgomery, including Rosa, had been planning a boycott of the bus system and organizing a carpool system to make sure no one would be reliant on the buses. 

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat when asked to relinquish it to a white passenger. She was arrested and taken to jail. Four days later, she was found guilty of violating segregation laws and fined. On the same day, the Montgomery Bus Boycott started. For over a year, the Black community used the carpool system Rosa and the other leaders had helped create. In response, the city of Montgomery indicted 89 boycott leaders, including Rosa, in early 1956, but the boycott continued. After over 11 months of boycotting, the NAACP's legal battle against Montgomery's bus segregation came to an end when the Supreme Court ruled the city's laws to be unconstitutional in November 1956. Still, the boycott would last another month until a city ordinance finally desegregated Montgomery buses in late December.

After the boycott, Rosa and her husband moved to Detroit, following harassment and ongoing threats. Rosa continued to fight for civil rights, traveling the country to support different causes. She was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor, in 1999 for her work as a leader and an activist.

Why Care?

Now you may be thinking, "If the bus stance was the biggest thing Rosa Parks did, why is it important to know everything else? Textbooks can't cover everything in-depth, or they'll never be finished." While that may be true, Rosa Parks' story is being diminished and mistreated. Rosa Parks is rightly seen as a hero for civil rights, but she is not seen for the entirety of her work. Not giving credit to her efforts is a form of erasure of all she did. She constantly helped fight legal battles in the name of equality and worked side-by-side with prominent civil rights activists up until her health failed her. Rosa Parks cannot continue to be whitewashed into the tired, old seamstress who made a quick decision. She must be remembered for all that she was - an organizer, leader, fighter, and world-changer.

Think Further

  1. Why do you think Rosa Parks’ legacy has been reduced to her defiance on the bus?
  2. Do you think other civil rights leaders have experienced similar treatments to Rosa Parks? Why or why not?
  3. How did Rosa Parks’ experience as an activist help her when it came time to make her stand on the bus?

Teacher Resources

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Learn More

  1. “The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks.” CUNY, https://rosaparksbiography.org/bio/.
  2. “Rosa Parks ignites bus boycott.” History, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/rosa-parks-ignites-bus-boycot
  3. “Biography.” The Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, https://www.rosaparks.org/biography/.
  4. “Rosa Parks: Activist. Fighter. Hero.” Biographics. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NYlBVVYVJmQ.