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Biography of Rosa Parks

Madhavi Ghare
A great civil rights activist, Rosa Parks made major contributions in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Led by the charismatic Martin Luther King, Jr., the movement brought about an enormous shift in the treatment of blacks in the US. They were given equal status by law.

The Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement was notable for its insistence on nonviolent methods of protest. Martin Luther King, Jr., received a Nobel Peace Prize for his exemplary leadership. Rosa Parks' initiation into the movement is remarkable, since  she tried to nonviolently defend her rights even before Martin Luther King, Jr., had officially initiated the movement.

Rosa Parks: A Timeline

February 4, 1913: Birth
1932: Marriage to Raymond Parks
1944: Volunteer Secretary at NAACP
December 1, 1955: The Montgomery Bus Incident
December 5, 1955: Bus System Protest at Montgomery
November 13, 1956: US Supreme Court order against racial segregation on buses
December 20, 1956: End of the Bus System Protest at Montgomery
1965: Secretary to John Conyers
1988: Retirement
1992: Published 'Rosa Parks: My Story'
1995: Published 'Quiet Strength'
October 24, 2005: Death

The Biography of Rosa Parks


Rosa Louise McCauley Parks was born on February 4, 1913, to James McCauley, a carpenter, and Leona Edwards, a teacher. Parks was of mixed ancestry: she was part African, Cherokee-Muscogee, and Scots-Irish. When her parents separated, she and her younger brother Sylvester stayed with their mother, and relocated to their grandmother's farm in Pine Level.
Home-schooled till eleven, Rosa moved on to the Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes for her secondary education. However, she had to drop out, as she had to care for her sick grandmother and later on, her mother. Her family were members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, an institution founded by free Blacks in the early 1800's.
In her later interviews, she narrated how she hid from the Ku Klux Klan. These experiences ingrained in her the unjust treatment meted out to blacks. In contrast to these harrowing experiences, Parks also remarked that some of her white neighbors were very nice to their family, which helped her remain balanced in her struggle against white people.

Before the Montgomery Bus Incident

In 1932, Rosa married Raymond Parks, a barber in Montgomery. He was a member of the NAACP. She took on various jobs from being a domestic worker to a housekeeper to a hospital aide. She finished her high school education in 1933. At the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, she was working as a seamstress.
In 1943, Rosa Parks joined the NAACP and was elected to be the volunteer secretary to the president of the association, Edgar Nixon. In 1944, Parks worked on the Maxwell Air Force Base, which, being the federal territory, didn't enforce segregation. This experience, in her own words, "opened her eyes up".
Throughout her life, Rosa had seen the segregation between the white and the black people - the life of those times was marked by such color oriented discrimination on a daily basis on every level of existence. She had seen and experienced it in schools and colleges, in the workplace and even in the public transport.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott

In the late 1800s, a series of laws had been passed by the primarily white local administrations in the South known as Jim Crow laws which made segregation between the whites and blacks compulsory in all public facilities, including washrooms, public transport, and even drinking fountains!
The system of segregating the passengers in buses was unusual. The first four rows of seats were reserved for white people, and blacks could sit on the remaining seats. In spite of this formal arrangement, it had become the norm to force the black passengers to move to the rear if white people had no seats available.
The white and black sections were separated by a movable sign that the driver could shift to accommodate more white people. If many white passengers didn't have seats, the drivers could also remove the sign altogether and force the black passengers to get off the bus.
Rosa Parks had suffered numerous times at the hand of this system. Once, when she boarded a bus from the front, the driver told her to re-enter the bus from the rear, as was the rule for blacks. When Parks got off the bus, the driver drove off. Parks recalled this incident in her later life, to explain the hardships she and other blacks had to bear.
~ On December 1, 1955, Parks and four other people were sitting in the first seats of the black section of the bus, right behind the 'white' section. When more white people climbed aboard the bus, the driver moved the board back and asked the four to get up.
~ The other three complied, while Parks refused to give up her seat. The driver told her to move, and threatened her that he would call the police. When she still refused to move, the driver called the police and had her arrested.
Rosa Parks was, later, charged with violating the local law. She appealed the decision, questioning the fundamental legality of segregation. From the day of her trial, December 5, the black community of Montgomery boycotted the public bus system for 381 days. The Blacks organized carpools, commuted in black-driven cabs, or even walked to work.
On November 13, 1956, the United States Supreme Court passed a court order which deemed the racial segregation on buses to be unconstitutional. The news reached the protesting black community of Montgomery on December 20, and the boycott ended the next day.

Later Years

Although black people won a major legal battle with that decision, life for Rosa Parks and her husband became very difficult. She lost her job and her husband was instructed not to talk about her or the milestone case; as a result, he quit his job. After the trial, they moved to Hampton, Virginia, and then to Detroit. Parks found another job as a seamstress.
In 1965, she was appointed as the secretary and receptionist in the congressional office of the African-American U.S. Representative John Conyers. She worked there till her retirement in 1988. Conyers praised Parks for her integrity. In his own words,
"[She was] just a very special person. There was only one Rosa Parks"
In 1977, her husband, Raymond, and her brother, Sylvester, both died of cancer. Two years later, her mother fell prey to the same disease. These personal losses forced Parks to disengage herself from civil rights activity. However, she rejoined in 1980, by co-founding the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation.
In 1992 Rosa Parks published her autobiography, titled 'Rosa Parks: My Story', and in 1995, another of her memoirs, titled Quiet Strength. The autobiography details the life of Rosa Parks till her decision to not give up her seat on the bus, while the memoirs talk about the part played by faith in her life.

Rosa Parks - The Honors

She received many honors after the abolition of segregation. The most notable of these were:
Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton in 1996
Congressional Gold Medal in 1999
Martin Luther King Jr. Award in 1980
Being named among the 20 most influential and iconic figures of the 20th century by Time magazine


Rosa Parks died on October 24, 2005. She was 92 years old and suffered from progressive dementia. On the day of her funeral, President George Bush ordered all US flags to be flown at half-mast. After the death of Coretta Scott King, the wife of Martin Luther King, Jr., Super Bowl XL (2006) was dedicated to her and Rosa Parks.
Rosa Parks' birthday and the day she got arrested on the Montgomery bus have both been termed 'Rosa Parks Day', and are held in California and Ohio.
Her life paints the picture of a woman unafraid to stand up for what she believed in, eager to help others like her, and determined to drag her oppressed community from the rut of segregation into an hitherto unseen dawn of equality and justice.