Rosa Louise McCauley Parks was born 100 years ago, on Feb. 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Ala. She was born in the segregated South, where African Americans were subjected to daily humiliations aimed at maintaining the system of exploitation and national oppression that grew out of slavery and the failure of Reconstruction.
In the early 20th century, African Americans were being unjustly imprisoned, assaulted and lynched by white mobs organized into the Ku Klux Klan and other racist organizations. The entire legal system was geared toward maintaining white supremacy, where African-American people were denied the right to vote, to live where they wanted and to achieve educational and career goals commensurate with their wishes and qualifications.
Alabama was considered one of the most violent and racist states in the South. Parks and her husband Raymond, whom she married in 1932, participated in the campaign to free the “Scottsboro Boys,” a group of African-American youth falsely accused of raping two white women on a freight train in 1931. The case gained national attention and drew support from both the Communist Party and the NAACP.
Parks, who later moved to Montgomery where she worked as a seamstress, was elected secretary of the Montgomery Chapter of the NAACP in 1943. She worked alongside E. D. Nixon, a labor organizer and advocate for workers who was a longtime member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, founded by A. Philip Randolph.
In 1944, Parks helped investigate the gang rape of Recy Taylor, an African-American woman, and helped form the Committee for Equal Justice for Recy Taylor. The Chicago Defender described the campaign as the most significant effort against racism of the decade.
Taylor had been walking home from church in Abbeville, Ala., when she was kidnapped by six white men, taken to a deserted area and repeatedly assaulted. Although the car and the assailants were identified, no charges were ever filed against the men for their crimes. The case was indicative of the culture of racist impunity prevailing in the South and in other regions of the U.S.
Montgomery bus boycott
Rosa Parks was thrust into the national spotlight when she was arrested on Dec. 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her seat to a white man in the “colored section” of a city bus. After her arrest, the African-American community immediately took action, and the Montgomery Improvement Association, formed by Nixon and led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., called for a citywide bus boycott that lasted for over a year.
During this period, the homes of Nixon and King were bombed. Nevertheless, the community held its ground and eventually won a federal court ruling that outlawed segregation in municipal bus transportation.
The case initiated the modern Civil Rights movement, which reached its peak between 1955 and 1965. Thousands marched from Selma to Montgomery demanding universal suffrage. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 represented a culmination of this phase of the African-American struggle for equality and self-determination.
Due to political pressure and harassment, Parks and her husband left Montgomery in 1957 and settled in Detroit. Parks continued to work as a seamstress until 1965, when she was hired as a receptionist for the newly elected Congressperson John Conyers Jr. She worked for Conyers until her retirement in 1988.
Parks continued to participate in Civil Rights activities into her senior years. In the mid-1970s, a major thoroughfare, 12th Street, where the Detroit rebellion began in 1967, was renamed in her honor. In later years, she formed the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, which organized tours for youth of Civil Rights historical sites.
Parks made her transition on Oct. 24, 2005, at the age of 92. Her funeral was attended by thousands in the city of Detroit.
A series of events over the last several months have honored her 100th birthday. These efforts will culminate at the Ford Museum in Dearborn on Feb. 4. The museum houses the Montgomery city bus where Parks was arrested in 1955. It is a source of interest for students and tourists to the Detroit area. The event is free and open to the public.
Anita Peek, executive director of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, spoke at the Detroit MLK Day Rally and March held at Central United Methodist Church in downtown Detroit on Jan. 21 in honor of the slain Civil Rights leader. Peek invited the capacity crowd to participate in the centenary activities. n