Black History Month Pathfinder Profile: Rosa Parks

You have probably heard the story of how a tired seamstress became an accidental activist after she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery. You have probably also heard how her refusal to give up her seat ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott nearly overnight. That story is tidy and neat, but it does not begin to peel back the layers of what Rosa Parks contributed to the Civil Rights Movement.

Rosa Parks was no accidental activist. Parks was known to be resolute and purposeful with her activism. Before refusing to give up her seat on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks had served and trained with the NAACP for 12 years. She initially worked on criminal justice issues in Alabama. In her early years with the NAACP she worked on criminal justice issues that involved protecting black men from false accusations and ensuring black people who had been sexually assaulted by white people were given the opportunity to seek justice. She furthered her dedication to effect change when she attended a two-week intensive training with an integrated group of 47 other people at Highlander Folk School in Tennessee to develop her skills in leadership and civil disobedience.

Educated in segregated schools, Rosa was well aware of the injustices black people faced. She saw her grandfather defend their home against KKK members as a young girl. These experiences shaped her view of the world. She noted she chose to marry Raymond Parks because he was an activist and equally radical. Mr. Parks delivered food and organized protests for The Scottsboro Nine. Mrs. Parks attended NAACP events in Jacksonville, Atlanta, and Washington D.C. where she received leadership training from Ella Baker who later became a friend and mentor. Rosa Parks was committed to making a difference and being an effective leader.

Rosa also worked on behalf of other women who were arrested before her. On March 2, 1955, Ms. Claudette Colvin refused to move to the back of the bus and was arrested. Mrs. Parks and white liberals raised money for Colvin’s case. The male leaders in the movement wanted to focus on finding “sympathetic” plaintiffs or people they could easily endear to the public. They felt Colvin was too young, poor, and dark skinned. Additionally, Colvin was not charged with violating the segregation laws so they chose not to rally behind her.

Mary Louise Smith refused to move to the back of the bus on October 21, 1955, and was arrested. She was also considered too poor and too young to be a sympathetic plaintiff.

After Rosa’s arrest organizers felt they had the perfect storm of circumstances to end segregation through litigation. Rosa was fair skinned, middle class and married. She was well known in the activist circles and organizers felt this was their best chance to secure a victory. The bus boycott began on December 5 (the day of Park’s arraignment) and continued for 381 days.

After more consideration, strategists chose Aurelia Browder as the lead plaintiff for the case they pushed through to the Supreme Court. Rosa was not the lead plaintiff because her work with the NAACP and her husband’s activism could be too controversial. They didn’t want to take any chances. Along with Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, and Susan McDonald, the case Browder vs. Gayle went to the Supreme Court. On November 13, 1956, the court struck down segregation. The Montgomery Bus Boycott ended on December 20, 1956. The boycott crippled the local economy thanks to the sustained organizing efforts of a team of strategists which included Bayard Rustin, E.D. Nixon, A. Philip Randolph, Ralph David Abernathy, Rev. Bernard Simms, Dr. King, Rufus Lewis and so many more. King grew in notoriety and popularity thanks to his involvement with the boycott.

Parks and her husband found it difficult to find jobs and live in Montgomery after her arrest and trial. They moved to Detroit, Michigan and built a new life. Parks worked as secretary for Rep. John Conyer’s office. She also founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development. She published two books including her autobiography, Rosa Parks: My Story and her Quiet Strength, her memoirs.

Parks received praise, recognition and awards in her lifetime. Among her awards:

  • NAACP’s Spingarn Medal
  • The Presidential Medal of Freedom
  • The Congressional Gold Medal
  • Time Magazine’s “The 20 Most Influential People of the 20th Century” (1999)
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Award
  • Rosa Parks Forever stamp (USPS)

The Ellison for Congress Campaign celebrates Rosa Parks for her efforts to forge new pathways. She is one of the #Pathfinders we are honoring with our Special Edition Black History Month collection. Click here to shop the collection. All proceeds from our campaign store are used to support our efforts to get District 17 on A New Path Forward.