7 – Rosa Parks
“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 … No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” Rosa Parks
The seventh member of our rebellious women’s institute will need absolutely no introduction at all. Rosa Parks is one of the most famous women in American history, a true trailblazer and inspirational figure. Her actions lead her to be dubbed “the first lady of the struggle for civil rights” and her manner, always dignified and resolute to the last, touched millions.
Rosa Louise McCauley was born in 1913 to a poor family that lived in a society that was almost completely separated by race. The Alabama in which she was raised was riddled with Jim Crow laws: almost every public service was segregated between white people and black people, with black people invariably receiving far poorer provisions as a result. Racist violence was a fact of life and around Montgomery, where she was educated, the Ku Klux Klan was always a threat. They marched down the street on which Rosa lived when she was a young girl, her grandfather standing on the step with a shotgun. “I’d see the bus pass every day,” she said later of her upbringing. “But to me, that was a way of life; we had no choice but to accept what was the custom. The bus was among the first ways I realized there was a black world and a white world.”
She became involved in the civil rights movement as an adult, helping defend black people from miscarriages of justice. When she got a job on an air force base, he was exposed to a non-segregated world – federal properties were integrated – and recognised the injustice of the world to which she had become accustomed in her everyday life. On December 1, 1955, she made her stand. On the bus on the way home from work, she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, as the law mandated that she must. The driver called the police and Rosa was arrested.
She later said:
“I did not want to be mistreated, I did not want to be deprived of a seat that I had paid for. It was just time… there was opportunity for me to take a stand to express the way I felt about being treated in that manner. I had not planned to get arrested. I had plenty to do without having to end up in jail. But when I had to face that decision, I didn’t hesitate to do so because I felt that we had endured that too long. The more we gave in, the more we complied with that kind of treatment, the more oppressive it became.”
Her arrest and trial sparked a boycott of the Montgomery bus system by black patrons, which continued for months. A young minister, Martin Luther King Jnr, was elected leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which was formed to coordinate the boycott and other civil rights campaigns. Soon, the whole country had heard of Rosa Parks and her struggle against segregation and discrimination in Montgomery. She toured the United States giving speeches and was seen as a mother of the civil rights movement.
Her actions begat one of the biggest changes in American history. By 1965, a decade after she had refused to give up her seat, the Civil Rights Act had been passed, which explicitly outlawed discrimination based on race and the Voting Rights Act gave black people the right to vote that had long been denied under Jim Crown. Rosa Parks remained a figurehead within the Civil Rights Movement all the way up to her death in 2005 at the age of 92.