Rosa Parks: The First Lady of Civil Rights

“We hope to achieve equal rights as any human being deserves.” – Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks (1913—2005) helped initiate the civil rights movement in the United States when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955. Her actions inspired the leaders of the local Black community to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Led by a young Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the boycott lasted more than a year—during which Parks not coincidentally lost her job—and ended only when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional. Over the next half-century, Rosa Parks became a nationally recognized symbol of dignity and strength in the struggle to end entrenched racial

In celebration of Women’s History Month, I am highlighting women who have had historical influence and also remind us of how inner strength, beliefs, and a sense of purpose can set us on a path in life that can also change the course of other people’s lives. Rosa Parks is a particularly profound example of this. Rosa Parks is a legend for the Civil Rights Movement. Her quiet eloquence coupled with her dignity and strength are part of what makes her legendary work as a Civil Rights Leader so extraordinary. Rosa Parks endured racial segregation in the Deep South as a child and was prepared to sacrifice everything for justice as she emerged as the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott when she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man at the age of 42 years old. Such an incredibly simple thing was an act of great courage and strength. In the face of systematized segregation, Rosa Parks refused to continue accepting what was her daily reality in Alabama.

Rosa Park was born on February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama. Under Jim Crow laws, racial violence was a pervasive reality for Black Southerners. She grew up on a farm with her mother, younger brother and maternal grandparents. They were active members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and Rosa’s faith helped ground her sense of purpose when pursuing civil rights. She married NAACP member, Raymond Parks, in 1932 and she too joined the NAACP. A particularly important note about the driving factors for the courage that Rosa Parks had in not giving up her seat was that she was recently informed of the acquittal of the two men who had murdered Emmett Till in Mississippi. Emmett Till was wrongly accused of rape and was subsequently lynched. This was utterly horrifying.

Parks and her husband had been supporting efforts to defend the Scottsboro Boys, a group of Black men falsely accused of raping two white women. Given that the Emmett Till trial was more widely known about than the Scottsboro Boys, Parks was particularly saddened (and rightfully angry) that the two men were acquitted of the crime given that Till’s case had more status. Rosa Parks was informed of this only four days before she would refuse to give up her seat on the bus. This outrage was likely the largest driving factor for her in her protest on the bus.

Rosa Parks spent the entirety of her career fighting for racial justice, including for the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa as well. Her work in the Civil Rights movement has a continuity to this day and her impact as a social rights leader reminds all of us that we can engage in the fight for justice if we step up to it.

Civil rights leader Rosa Parks waits to receive the Congressional Gold Medal in Statuary Hall in the Capitol Building, Washington, DC, June 14, 1999. (Photo by William Philpott/Getty Images)

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