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Rosa Parks: Icon of US civil rights movement

Kristina Reymann-Schneider
February 3, 2023

She stood up for her rights by staying seated: Rosa Parks gave the US civil rights movement a huge boost and inspired Martin Luther King.

Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks
Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, ca. 1955Image: Cinema Publishers Collection/IMAGO

In 1955 in the US, radio stations were playing Bill Haley's hit "Rock Around the Clock" around the clock, Billy Wilder's romantic comedy "The Seven Year Itch" starring Marilyn Monroe premiered in New York, and the western series "Gunsmoke" launched on television. It was also the year that future celebrities Bill Gates, Bruce Willis and Whoopi Goldberg were born.

And it was the year that two white men brutally murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was Black, in Mississippi.

The event was seen as a catalyst for the emerging civil rights movement, as protests followed the killers' acquittal in court.

At about the same time, an African-American woman named Rosa Parks was arrested, sparking a protest campaign that would go down in history as the Montgomery bus boycott — another key moment in the civil rights movement.

Segregation led to opposition

Racial segregation was widespread in the South. 

There were separate schools, park benches and even water fountains for Black people and white people.

There were also rules for public transportation. White people sat at the front of the bus, Black people had to sit at the back; they were sometimes tolerated in the middle seats, provided they got up when white passengers wanted to sit.

Black people had to board the bus through the front door to pay the driver, but then had to get off again and walk to the rear of the vehicle before getting back on. 

Two men and two women, including Rosa Parks, left, and Martin Luther King, second from left, holding an award.
Rosa Parks, left, and Martin Luther King, second from left, at an award ceremony in 1965Image: AP Photo/picture alliance

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks,  who worked as a seamstress in a department store in Montgomery, Alabama, boarded a city bus after work and took a seat. She was 42 years old, married, and active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

When Parks was told to get up and leave her seat to a white passenger, she refused. The bus driver threatened to call the police and have her arrested, but she answered: "You may do that," and remained seated. The police came and arrested her.

Arrest sparked boycott

In the wake of Park's arrest, the Women's Political Council of Montgomery called for a boycott, urging people in the Black community to avoid taking a city bus on the upcoming Monday, the day on which Rosa Parks' trial was scheduled, and to walk or take a cab instead — most people heeded this call.

Rosa Parks was fined $14 (€13), including court costs, for "disorderly conduct" and violating segregation laws.

The bus boycott, which was coordinated by a still relatively new pastor in Montgomery, Martin Luther King, who was only in his mid-20s at the time, continued.

His leadership role garnered him enemies. He survived two bomb attacks, but was not deterred from preaching non-violent resistance.

The boycott ended on November 13, 1956, after the US Supreme Court ruled that Alabama's bus segregation laws were unconstitutional. It was a huge success for the civil rights movement, showing that non-violent protest, against all odds, could work.

Rosa Parks, a woman seated in a bus, a man seated behind her.
After 1956, Rosa Parks could sit wherever she wanted on the bus Image: UIG/IMAGO

The experience also shaped Martin Luther King who became the chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a civil rights organization that emerged from the bus boycott. 

The group initiated the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, where King held his famous "I have a Dream" speech in front of more than 200,000 people.

'Make this world a better place for all people'

Rosa Parks was not the first woman to defend her seat on the bus and her place in society. 

But the fact that she was an adult woman, married, had no police record, and was involved with the NAACP, where she volunteered as a secretary, made her case a precedent. She knew what she was doing and was prepared for the consequences of her action, determined to do what she could to "make this world a better place for all people to enjoy freedom." 

"As far back as I can remember, I knew there was something wrong with our way of life when people could be mistreated because of the color of their skin," she said at an NAACP meeting in 1956.

 Rosa Parks statue in the Rotunda of the US Capitol, between two other statues.
The Rosa Parks statue at the US Capitol in Washington Image: J. Scott Applewhite/AP/picture alliance

The decision not to give up her seat on the bus was a logical consequence. "People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day," she later wrote in her autobiography, "My Story".

"I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in."

An immediate result of her act of defiance was that she lost her job and began to receive death threats. Since she no longer felt safe in Montgomery, she and her husband went to Detroit to live with Parks' brother.

Parks found work as a seamstress and continued to fight for civil rights and liberties. And from 1965 until she retired, she worked as a secretary for John Conyers, an African-American congressman.

Inside of a bus with a rose and a picture of Rosa Parks on one seat
In Racine, Wisconsin, in 2022, city transit buses kept a seat open to honor the civil rights pioneer on Rosa Parks DayImage: Mark Hertzberg/Zuma/picture alliance

In 1998, various US states introduced Rosa Parks Days — some on December 1, the anniversary of her arrest, others on February 4, her birthday.

When her house in Detroit was scheduled for demolition in 2016, her niece bought it and had Ryan Menoza, a US artist, dismantle it and rebuild it in Berlin.

Two years later, it returned to the US, and in 2020, it was reassembled yet again, this time on the grounds of a royal palace in Naples, Italy.

Rosa Parks died in 2005 at the age of 92. She lay in honor in the Capitol Rotunda and was the first woman to be afforded this recognition. She was also the first Black US woman to be honored with a statue in the Capitol.

Rosa Parks' House parked in Berlin

This article was originally written in German.