social & justice

WOMEN'S HISTORY MONTH: Rosa Parks

Karthika S Nair | Mar 19 2020
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Rosa Parks: First Lady Of The Civil Rights Movement

"To bring about change, you must not be afraid to take the first step. We will fail when we fail to try." - Rosa Parks.

One of the social evils that continue to haunt the air and soil of the United States is racial segregation and related atrocities. Many men, women, and children suffered under its oppression until some stood up for their rights.

The most prominent figure in American civil rights history was an ordinary woman who simply wanted to sit down that was Rosa Parks. Her act of defiance made her a national symbol. 

Early Life And Racial Laws That Haunted Her

Rosa Louise McCauley was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, on February 4, 1913. Her mother Leona was a teacher and her father was a carpenter. Rosa studied in rural schools until she was eleven. As a child, she suffered from health issues like chronic tonsillitis. 

After most of her schooling, she studied in a child laboratory school set up by the Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes for secondary education but had to drop out eventually. 

Growing up, Rosa had to witness massive racism which swept the law and politics of the country. The administration of many Confederate states had adopted new constitutions and electoral laws that effectively disenfranchised black voters and poor white voters, including in her state Alabama.

White authorities brought Jim Crow laws, which was passed by Democrats, and it brought up racial segregation in public facilities and retail stores in the South, including public transportation, etc. Which means that there were specific spots, places, and facilities meant for white people and black people. Buses and trains had separate seats for white and coloured people. Coloured people had lesser facilities when compared to white people. Black people's education was underfunded and they did not have a school bus in the Southern region. 

As a child, Rosa had to walk to her school with her black school mates. She was subjected to racial abuse from her white children in her neighbourhood and sometimes, she fought back physically. 

The white supremacist group 'Ku Klux Klan' used to march down her streets and her men in her family often stood outside armed with a gun to protect them. 

That being said, she has experienced kindness from white strangers as a child. 

Involvement With NAACP 

Rosa married  Raymond Parks, who was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Her early touches with activism began then on. Due to her husband's insistence, she finished her schooling, becoming one of the 7% African Americans who had a high school diploma. For that, she had to do numerous jobs from domestic worker to a hospital aide.

A decade after getting her diploma, she became active in the civil rights movement and was elected secretary of NAACP. 

Gangrape Of Recy Taylor 

Though she was fighting against systemic racism, she was still at the receiving end of sexism within her own circle. African American women had to fight two different fights; racism and misogyny. 

For eg: civil rights leader Edgar Daniel Nixon believed that women don't have to be anywhere else but the kitchen. But Rosa's work impressed him and he said that he wanted a good secretary and for him, she was good for it. 

African American men were easily convicted if they are accused of sexual violence committed against white women. For eg: when the Scottsboro Boys were falsely accused of raping two white women, they faced a massive miscarriage of justice in the forms of all-white juries, rushed trials, and disruptive mobs. Rosa and her husband were collecting funds to help the boys in their case. 

At the same time, when an African American woman is at the receiving end of sexual violence committed by white men, then they are forced to run from pillar to post to get justice. Even then, the all-white justice system denied the same. 

One such example was Recy Taylor, who was gang-raped by white men and left on the streets when she was going home from the church. Recy Taylor contacted Rosa Parks in 1944 and they formed The Committee for Equal Justice against interracial rape and sexual harassment. Recy Taylor did not get justice and the men were not indicted.

But her case and her voice compelled black women's involvement in the civil rights movement. The media called the committee's campaign, initiated by Parks and Taylor, as one of the strongest fights for equal justice in a decade. 

Committee for Equal Justice empowered women to report acts of sexual violence directly to the NAACP.  Alabama Governor Robert Bentley and the state legislature passed a resolution apologizing to Recy Taylor for denying her justice. 

The Bus Boycott That Changed America

Montgomery bus segregation laws angered the African American community for years. They had to follow the rules that forced them to enter the bus from the back. The seats were assigned to white people and black people separately. But the conductors had the power to change the seats. So, most of the time, despite being 75% of the bus riders, African Americans were persuaded by the bus driver to give up their seats to white people when the white section was full. Women with toddlers in their hands and the elderly were forced to stand on the bus.

Rosa was once insulted by a bus driver named James F. Blake who told her to follow city rules and enter the bus again from the back. When she got off, the man drove off despite her paying the ticket while it was raining heavily. The rain didn't put off the anger in her. 

Later, Rosa got on a bus after working all day. She was so tired that she just wanted to sit down and relax. She sat in the coloured people's section. Then, when the white people's section was full, the bus driver asked her to move. The driver happens to be Blake, the man who left her in the rain, and he asked her and three others to move for one white person. Others moved but she didn't. There was something in her that ran all over her body that compelled her to sit still. 

Blake persuaded her to move but she didn't, much to the horror of other African Americans on the bus. Blake said that he will have her arrested to which she responded, "you may."

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Blake got her arrested. She asked the arresting officer why the black people were pushed around for the sake of whites, he responded, "its the law, we are doing our jobs."

Rosa vowed that it would be the last time she was humiliated. She was bailed out by Edgar Nixon. She was not the person who rebelled by sitting still but her actions caught the national eye. 

A civil rights activist Jo Ann Robinson joined Nixon for a bus boycott. African Americans were persuaded to join the boycott for more black drivers and easier movements for black people. 

Black people started walking and took cabs run by black drivers. Protestors gathered at Mt. Zion AME Zion Church to discuss their strategy. The bus boycott in Montgomery took place for as long as 381 days. Due to the fact that African Americans were 75% of the riders, dozens of buses stood idly and faced losses. 

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Amidst all this, Rosa Parks started raising international awareness of the plight of African Americans under the racial segregation laws. 

Martin Luther King Jr wrote that though Rosa did not start the civil rights movement, she catalysed it with her act of defiance. She was one of the finest citizens of Montgomery and had to face humiliation. 

Soon,  the US Supreme Court ruling in 'Browder v. Gayle' declared segregation on public buses as unconstitutional.

Rosa Parks also highlighted that there are worse forms of segregations like housing, healthcare, schools etc. 

Honours And Achievements

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Throughout her life, she continues to fight for the rights of women and African Americans. She was dubbed as the mother of the civil rights movement of the first lady of the civil rights movement. 

She was involved in other works like planned parenthood, freedom of political prisoners and self-defence. 

She published her autobiography 'Rosa Parks: My Story'. She was featured in various media shows and news stories which covered civil rights. 

She founded and ran the 'Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation' and 'Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development.'

A portion of United States Interstate 55 in St. Louis County and Jefferson County, Missouri, was named 'Rosa Parks Highway' by authorities to honour her. Also as a response to the 'Ku Klux Klan' who wanted to sponsor the portion for "cleanup."

Her former residence in Detroit was moved and partially restored by Berlin-based American artist, Ryan Mendoza in his garden in Germany. Today, it is a museum to honour Rosa Parks.

12th Street Rosa Parks Boulevard in the early 1970s. In 1979, she was conferred with the Spingarn Medal, highest honour NAACP.

African-American Achievement Award was renamed  Rosa Parks Awards by California State University. 

She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996 and the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award given by the US legislative branch in 1999.

 She died at the age of 92 in 2005. She does not have children so is survived by her nephews and nieces. 

A statue of hers was unveiled in Montgomery, Alabama amidst the process of removing Confederate statues.

An asteroid 284996 Rosaparks, discovered in 2010 by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, was named in 2014.

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