How much do you really know about Rosa Parks?

Rosa Parks has been referred to as the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement, but how much do you really know about her? The day she refused to give up her seat was only one event in a lifetime of Civil Rights advocacy.

Congressional Black Caucus Holds A News Conference On "Rosa Parks Day Act"
Congressional Black Caucus Holds A News Conference On "Rosa Parks Day Act" / Win McNamee/GettyImages

Rosa Parks is probably one of the best-known women in American History, but many people don't know very much about her. Myths have been crafted that she was an old woman, without the strength to get up and move. The truth is, she had the strength to fight back against a system that would have happily killed her for her defiance.

In addition to the myths, very few people know about her life before or after that fateful day in 1955. Rosa Parks was a steadfast advocate from at least the 1930s, and she fought for far more than the right to sit on a Montgomery bus.

It is unfair to Parks to make her legacy exclusively focused on the Bus Boycott. While this event was unquestionably important, there is so much more of her story to tell. This Women's History Month, consider learning more about a woman who so many people hold as their hero. You might be surprised how much more impressive real life is than the story you've been told.

President Bill Clinton Speaks With Civil Rights Legend Rosa Parks 86 During A Ceremony In The Capi
President Bill Clinton Speaks With Civil Rights Legend Rosa Parks 86 During A Ceremony In The Capi / Georges De Keerle/GettyImages

A brief biography of Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks was born as Rosa Louise McCauley on February 4, 1913. As a child, she was frequently bedridden by chronic tonsillitis, which the family couldn't afford to treat. At nine, she was able to get a tonsillectomy, which provided her the opportunity to fully engage with the world.

Parks was a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church from a young age, and her faith was always a critical part of her life. The church was actually formed in large part in response to restrictive segregation rules, including the inability for Black parishioners to sit freely at its predecessor, St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church.

Rosa McCauley got married in 1932 to Raymond Parks, a young man who urged her to continue fighting for a better future. He convinced her to finish her schooling, which had been interrupted when she had to care for her mother and grandmother, and he helped her connect to the NAACP.

She joined the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in December 1943, and while she was frequently discriminated against for her sex, she used the position to help advance equal rights for women and African Americans. One of her more notable actions included working on "The Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor," a report about a Black woman who had been the victim of a malicious gang rape.

After the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rosa and Raymond Parks lost their jobs. They received death threats on a regular basis. Unable to sustain themselves in Alabama, the couple moved to Virginia and then Detroit, Michigan. However, conditions weren't much better in either place, which led Rosa Parks to continue fighting for equal rights.

Parks helped campaign for John Conyers in the 1960s, becoming his secretary for the next 20 years. In addition, she befriended Malcolm X and worked to raise awareness about affordable housing and police brutality in Detroit. Her advocacy was seemingly unstoppable, as she also fought for the release of political prisoners and greater access to education for people of color.

She suffered multiple personal injuries and illnesses in the 1970s, along with family crises. Both her husband and brother died of cancer in 1977. While this led her to step back from advocacy in her grief, she never fully went away.

Despite being one of the best-known women in American history for her part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, much of her advocacy was ignored. To counter this, she published the autobiography Rosa Parks: My Story in 1992 and her memoir Quiet Strength in 1995.

After her death on October 24, 2005, Rosa Parks became the first woman, second Black person, and first non-government official to lie in honor at the US Capitol. This was an unprecedented honor, but stands in stark contrast to the struggles she faced throughout her life. Like so many members of the Civil Rights Movement, she received kinder treatment after her death than she ever did during her life.

Bus Rosa Parks Made Her Stand On Restored
Bus Rosa Parks Made Her Stand On Restored / Bill Pugliano/GettyImages

What you didn't know about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

While Rosa Parks's protest on a Montgomery bus has been portrayed as both a spontaneous event and a deeply premeditated one, the truth of the matter likely lies somewhere in between. There had been other cases of Black people refusing to change seats in the months and years before her actions, and the NAACP was eager to find a perfect case to launch their movement.

As Martin Luther King Jr. put it, "Mrs. Parks's arrest was the precipitating factor rather than the cause of the protest. The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices."

Parks discussed the way that buses factored into her awareness of segregation and racism from a young age in her speeches and books. Discussing the fact that white children had access to school buses, while Black children had to walk, Parks explained, "The bus was among the first ways I realized there was a Black world and a white world."

This continued to be a theme throughout her life. When she worked at the Maxwell Air Force Base, she was able to use the base's integrated trolley. This was remarkable, as it was one of the very few places where such integration was possible.

However, this experience only made it that much more frustrating to be mistreated on other modes of public transportation. Rosa Parks frequently pushed back against the racist bus rules, which was a dangerous act in itself. Montgomery law allowed bus drivers to carry guns in case of troublesome riders.

"My resisting being mistreated on the bus did not begin with that particular arrest. I did a lot of walking in Montgomery."

Rosa Parks

While Rosa Parks has stated that her actions were spontaneous, they did not happen in a vacuum. Parks had a life's worth of resentment toward segregation built up. She had the righteous anger of knowing that Emmett Till had just been murdered, and his murderers had been acquitted. She was heartbroken by the assassinations of George W. Lee and Lamar Smith.

When she stepped onto that bus on December 1, 1955, the tinder was already gathered. The gas had been poured. She just had to strike a spark.

How Montgomery buses worked

One important thing to note is that Rosa Parks did not actually brake any laws on that bus. According to Montgomery city ordinances, buses could be segregated at the driver's discretion, but no passenger was required to move if there weren't other available seats.

Generally speaking, the first four rows of the bus were white-only, while the Black-only section was determined by how busy the bus was. If it was not particularly busy, they were fully within their rights to sit anywhere from the fifth row back. However, they were expected to move if more white passengers boarded than would fit in the first four rows.

This was not a legal mandate, but many Black passengers were kicked off the bus if they would not comply. Per Chapter 6, Section 11 of the Montgomery City Code of 1952, "Any employee in charge of a bus operated in the city shall have the powers of a police officer of the city while in actual charge of any bus."

In addition, Black riders were expected to enter at the front, pay, exit the bus, and then re-enter in the back. The system was created so that white passengers had to interact with Black passengers as little as possible, but it also gave bus drivers the ability to steal from Black citizens by driving off after Black passengers had paid and exited.

This exact situation happened to Rosa Parks in 1943, when bus driver James F. Blake ordered her to enter from the back and then left without her. He was the same man who called the police on Parks when she refused to give up her seat.

Previous cases involving segregation on public transportation

While most people only know about Rosa Parks' refusal to move, there were actually many other people who did the same thing in the years leading up to her 1955 protest. However, these cases often didn't receive as much attention because the people in question were not seen as moral exemplars like Parks was.

Below are just a few of the many cases where Black people were harassed, arrested, or even killed over segregated transportation.

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

While many people know that the Plessy v. Ferguson case cemented the "separate but equal" ruling in the American legal system, it's not common knowledge that the case was about the right to equal seating on public transportation. Homer Plessy sat in a white compartment on the East Louisiana Railroad train and was arrested for breaking the law.

The New Orleans District Court and the State Supreme Court agreed that "separate but equal" was valid, and that Plessy had broken the law. When the case was taken to the US Supreme Court, they found that, so long as there were options for both races, segregation was constitutional. This case gave states complete legal authority to discriminate by race for intrastate transportation.

Viola White (1944)

Viola White's story is extremely similar to Rosa Parks's. She refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, resulting in her arrest. However, she suffered greatly for her actions. When she was first arrested, the police officers beat her in a classic attempt to 'teach her her place.'

However, the brutality only got worse after she was found guilty. She worked alongside Civil Rights leader E. D. Nixon to try to appeal her case, but multiple public officials retaliated against her. They kept the appeal from being heard in court, and when she pushed harder, a man named A. A. Enger kidnapped and sexually assaulted her daughter.

After extensive effort to punished Enger, a warrant was finally signed for his arrest. When he left town, however, he managed to evade all justice. Viola White died ten years later, and her appeal never saw the light of day. This was a lesson to the Montgomery advocates in how to pursue legal action, what level of backlash to expect, and what a risk it was to be at the heart of such a case.

Hilliard Brooks (1950)

Hilliard Brooks was a young World War II veteran who refused to exit the bus and re-enter in the back. When the driver blocked him from entering, he demanded his money back. The driver refused and claimed that Brooks was a troublemaker, engaging in unacceptable behavior.

The driver called the police, who reportedly shoved Brooks to the ground and beat him repeatedly with a club. The young man attempted to get away, at which point Officer M. E. Mills began shooting. Along with dealing fatal injuries to Brooks, the officer shot two bystanders.

After Hilliard Brooks passed away, Mills was absolved by the police board of investigations and the Montgomery mayor, supposedly because he had been acting in self-defense against a dangerous aggressor. Once again, resistance to the system of segregation ended in tragedy.

Claudette Colvin (1955)

Claudette Colvin was a fifteen-year-old student who took the bus to get home from school. When the designated white section filled up, the bus driver demanded that she and the others in her row stand up to give a white woman their seats. She refused.

This event is especially notable because it took place around eight months before Rosa Parks did the same thing. Many Alabama activists, including Rosa Parks, fought for her, with the NAACP even planning to use her mistreatment as a rallying call for the protests that would end up taking place months later.

However, the court system was very careful with how they charged her. The judge dismissed her charges for disturbing the peace and breaking segregation laws, only sentencing her for supposedly assaulting the officers who had arrested her. This made it so she fit the "angry Black woman" stereotype, as well as making it so the segregation issue wasn't something she (or those who supported her) could appeal at a higher level.

Rosa Parks was one of very few people who continued to support her after her trial, until the NAACP was looking for plaintiffs in their Browder v. Gayle case. It cannot be overstated how important Colvin was to inspiring Rosa Parks's own refusal to move.

Per The Henry Ford, Black activists had considered multiple of these cases as sparks for their boycott. However, they needed a name and a face people would immediately sympathize with. When Rosa Parks was arrested, one Black woman was quoted as saying, "They’ve messed with the wrong one now."

December 1, 1955

On that famous day, Rosa Parks was seated just behind the white-only section of the bus. The bus driver, James F. Blake, demanded that all four Black people in the fifth row move so that a white man could sit without having to share the row with nonwhites. Three of them did so, but Parks was unwilling to give in to such a stupid, racist rule. As she told it:

"When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up and I said, 'No, I'm not.' And he said, 'Well, if you don't stand up, I'm going to have to call the police and have you arrested.' I said, 'You may do that.'"

Rosa Parks, Eyes on the Prize

Parks was arrested, prompting outrage from those in the community. The Montgomery Bus Boycott began on December 5, the day of her first trial.

Rosa Parks fueled the social movement, while others steered the legal fight

After refusing to move, Rosa Parks was arrested for violating Chapter 6, Section 11 of the Montgomery City code. When her lawyer argued that the law didn't actually apply in this situation, the prosecutor simply changed the charges from violating a city law to violating a state one. She was charged a $10 fine and $4 in court costs for her actions. According to US Census records, the median annual income for a nonwhite woman in the South at this time was only $462.

Rosa Parks appealed her arrest, which propelled the event to the national stage. She was represented by one of the few Black lawyers in Alabama, Fred Gray, but the decision was eventually made to not include her charges when they pursued a Supreme Court decision on the Constitutionality of transportation segregation in Browder v. Gayle.

For Browder v. Gayle, Gray included four women wo had faced similar circumstances to Parks, but whose trials were already over: Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin, and Mary Louise Smith. In the end, two federal judges and the Supreme Court found Alabama's segregation laws to be unconstitutional.

"We think that Plessy v. Ferguson has been impliedly, though not explicitly, overruled, and that, under the later decisions, there is now no rational basis upon which the separate but equal doctrine can be validly applied to public carrier transportation within the City of Montgomery and its police jurisdiction."

Judge Frank Johnson, Judge Richard Rives

When the Supreme Court backed the District Court's decision and refused Alabama's petition for a rehearing, the Montgomery Bus Boycott came to its end. The legal battle was over, though the Civil Rights Movement itself would continue on for another decade.

But what about Rosa Parks? She was still convicted of breaking the law. She was tormented by those upset by the changes that had been made in her name. Her charges would not be removed from the legal record until after her death in 2005.

There was so much more involved in the fight for Civil Rights than people often learn. While Rosa Parks was only one small part of the Montgomery desegregation movement, she continued to serve those who were disrespected by law and society until the end of her days.

Isn't that a more interesting story than an old woman, too tired to stand up on the bus?

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