“God Grant me the wisdom to know the difference between giving up and knowing when I have had enough.” This short quote was shared with me about six months ago by a friend via email. I am currently including it beneath my signature on my personal email account. I either smile or smirk when I think about the challenges that I have faced over the years as a woman of color working in the not so friendly world of engineering. Like Rosa Parks and so many others who have walked this road before me, I have had to discern when to continue traveling over the rocky terrain, change directions, or turn around.
February has been designated as Black History Month in the U.S. since 1976. Prior to this, Negro History Week was observed beginning in February 1926. This post focuses on one of the pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement – Rosa Parks. While I am aware of a number of facts about this iconic figure – she was married, worked as a seamstress, and was secretary of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) – what she is most known for is an act of perceived civil disobedience: she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus, thereby violating a city practice regarding the seating of white and colored riders.
This action sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Someone would later ask, “What causes a woman, after years of obeying the rules of a Jim Crow segregated society to reach a breaking point one day and say, either in word or action, “I’m mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore?”” That’s a good question. According to E.R. Shipp, Parks would later say, “My resisting being mistreated on the bus did not begin with that particular arrest…I did a lot of walking in Montgomery.” [Ref 1&2] I doubt very seriously that Rosa woke up that morning, looked in the mirror, and said, I think I’ll be uncooperative today, challenge the practice of racism in the City of Montgomery, AL’s public transportation system, and start a boycott!
Having frustrations of my own in the area of race and gender stereotypes, yet having been enlightened as to why some perceptions and behaviors die a long, hard, death, I needed to dig deeper to get a better understanding of the special DNA that made up Rosa’s character and moral fiber.
Some of the history provided by Wikipedia [Ref 1] and reported in this post shows that she was born Rosa Louise McCauley on February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, AL. As we continue to see more persons of mixed races in the 21st century, it is noted that Rosa was born of mixed ancestry including African, Cherokee-Creek and Scots-Irish. Her parents separated when she was a child, and she along with her mother and brother moved in with her maternal grandparents on a farm in the community of Pine Level, just outside of Montgomery, AL. Rosa attended rural schools until age 11 before becoming a student at the Industrial School for Girls in Montgomery where she took academic and vocational courses. She worked as a field hand, took care of her younger brother, Sylvester, and cleaned classrooms for tuition while still a child. She obtained additional education at the laboratory school that was established by the Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes for secondary education. Unfortunately, she had to drop out to care for her grandmother, and then later, her mother after they became ill.
Rosa married Raymond Parks in 1932 and remained his wife until his death in 1977. Her husband was already active in civil rights and encouraged her to join him. He also encouraged her to go back to school to get her high school diploma, and she did. In 1955, the year that she took a stand for justice, she was working as a seamstress at a local department store. She also held the position of secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. In addition to the above, Rosa had recently attended the Highlander Folk School, a training center in Tennessee that trained activist who would represent workers’ rights and racial equality.
On December 1, 1955, after a long hard day at work, Rosa Parks refused to obey a bus driver’s order that she give up her seat in the colored section to a white passenger after the white section was filled. Many Americans may not be aware that Rosa was not the first person to resist bus segregation. Other documented cases of those who had taken similar actions in the 20th century are Irene Morgan in 1946, Sarah Louise Keys in 1955, and the Browder v Gayle lawsuit (Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith ) – all who were arrested several months before Rosa.
One of the facts surrounding this incident that is often overlooked or not stated is that Rosa was seated in the “colored section” of the bus at the time of her arrest. The City of Montgomery had an ordinance in place that required the passengers to be separated by race. Conductors/drivers were allowed to assign seats to achieve that goal, however, by law, no passenger would be required to move or give up his seat and stand if the bus was crowded and no other seats were available. Over time and by custom, however, Montgomery bus drivers adopted the practice of requiring black riders to move when there were no white-only seats left. This was the situation that Rosa faced on that historic day.
Since Rosa’s act of defiance was done as a private citizen, the NAACP believed that she was the best candidate to present to the court in challenging Alabama’s segregation laws. Although widely honored in later years, she suffered dearly for disobeying the authorities. She was fired from her job as a seamstress in a local department store, and she and her husband faced difficulty finding work for many years afterwards.
Her single act of defiance led to her arrest, and it also sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Both became very important symbols of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Although she had difficulty finding work, she remained active in the Civil Rights Movement and traveled extensively giving speeches about her experience and the work that still needed to be done. Eventually, she moved to Detroit, MI where she briefly found similar work. From 1965 to 1988 she served as secretary and receptionist to John Conyers, an African-American U.S. Representative. After retirement, Parks wrote her autobiography, and lived a largely private life in Detroit. In her final years, she suffered from dementia.
On refusing to give up her seat on the bus that fateful day, she would later say, “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.….At the time I was arrested I had no idea it would turn into this. It was just a day like any other day. The only thing that made it significant was that the masses of the people joined in.” Rosa not only exhibited courage that day, she was elevated as a leader in the civil rights movement, and eventually would be named one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century.
Rosa never dreamed that her act of defiance would begin a movement that ushered in an era of change for an entire country. Her latter was definitely greater than her past. She has had significant honors bestowed on her while she was still living and posthumously, since her death. A few of her noteworthy honors and awards are listed here:
- 1979, the NAACP awarded Parks the Spingarn Medal, its highest honor,
- 1996, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the
the highest honor given by the U.S. executive branch.
- 1998, she was the first to receive the International Freedom Conductor Award given by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
- 1999, she received the Congressional Gold Medal – the highest award given by the U.S. legislative branch. The medal bears the legend “Mother of the Modern Day Civil Rights Movement”
- Time Magazine named Parks one of the 20 most influential and iconic figures of the 20th century.
- President Bill Clinton honored her in his State of the Union Address, saying, “She’s sitting down with the first lady tonight, and she may get up or not as she chooses.”
- 2003, Bus No. 2857 on which Parks was riding is restored and placed on display in the Henry Ford Museum.
- October 30, 2005 President George W. Bush issued a proclamation ordering that all flags on U.S. public areas, both within the country and abroad, be flown at half-staff on the day of Parks’ funeral.
- December 1, 2005, President George W. Bush signed Pub. L. 109-116, directing that a statue of Parks be placed in the United States Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.
- February 1, 2013, President Barack Obama proclaimed February 4, 2013, as the “100th Anniversary of the Birth of Rosa Parks.” He called upon all Americans to observe this day with appropriate service, community, and education programs to honor Rosa Parks’ enduring legacy.
- February 4, 3013, to celebrate Rosa Parks’ 100th birthday, the Henry Ford Museum declared the day a “National Day of Courage” with 12 hours of virtual and on-site activities featuring nationally recognized speakers, musical and dramatic interpretative performances, a panel presentation of Rosa’s Story and a reading of the tale Quiet Strength. The actual bus on which Rosa Parks sat was made available for the public to board and sit in the seat that Rosa Parks refused to give up.
- February 4, 2013, on the 100th anniversary of her birth, the United States Postal Service (USPS) unveiled a postage stamp in her honor.
Rosa died at age 92 in Detroit, MI on October 25, 2005. She was the first woman and second non-U.S. government official to lie in honor at the Capitol Rotunda. She has received a number of posthumous awards including two earlier this month. USPS announced that it would honor Mrs. Parks with a postage stamp in her honor, and the Henry Ford Museum declared the 100th anniversary of her birth, February 4, 2013, a “National Day of Courage.’’
It all started on a bus that day. A small unassuming woman, tired from a long day’s work. She politely said NO. She was arrested, jailed, and fined $14. A boycott ensued against the city’s bus system that lasted 381 days. The boycott brought the bus company to its knees. It took all of that to rid the public transportation system of discriminatory practices.
For citizens in the U.S. and the world, things may have been very different today had Rosa Parks had a good day at work. Thank you Rosa for having the courage to remain seated, when many others would have stood up.
- Rosa Parks, Wikipedia, www.wikipedia.org
- “Rosa Parks, 92, Founding Symbol of Civil Rights Movement, Dies”, E.R. Shipp, The New York Times. p. 2. October 25, 2005.
- Quotes by Rosa Parks, Brainy Quote, http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/r/rosa_parks.html