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By Brian Gilmore
Today marks the 100th birthday of civil rights legend Rosa Parks. To mark the date, the U.S. Postal Service has issued a Rosa Parks stamp complete with a ceremony in Detroit where Parks lived at the end of her life. It is a worthy honor for Mrs. Parks, a fitting tribute to one of the nation’s greatest citizens.
In December 1955, Parks, who was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, was living in Montgomery. She was working as a seamstress at a department store in a city that people called “The Cradle of the Confederacy.” The city, like the South, was racially segregated and racist to the core. Every facet of life in Montgomery, including its public bus transportation system, was segregated.
On the city bus system, whites sat in the front of the bus; blacks sat in the back. If there were no seats for whites, blacks had to give up their seats and stand. It was racist madness and a source of daily humiliation for the black citizens of Montgomery.
Parks was a passenger on a crowded Cleveland Avenue bus on December 1, 1955, when she refused an order by a white bus driver to give her seat up to a white passenger who had entered the crowded bus. After being threatened with arrest, Parks refused again and was arrested. She was jailed and fined for violating Montgomery’s segregation laws. Her act of defiance set off the Montgomery bus boycott in December 1955.
The blacks of Montgomery almost immediately formed the Montgomery Improvement Association and decided once and for all that they would no longer ride the buses in Montgomery as long as they were racially segregated. Blacks did not ride the buses; they either walked or were given rides through a clever but well organized system of cars and taxis organized by local civic groups.
The boycott stunned the whites of Montgomery and the city officials maintaining the racist laws. The nearly 13-month boycott would eventually lead to desegregation of the city’s public transit system, a major victory at that time. More importantly, the modern Civil Rights Movement began that day, and a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. was propelled into the spotlight.
However while the basic story of Rosa Parks and her singular act of defiance is well known, Rosa Parks is more than some historical accident. Parks was, in fact, in preparation for her moment in history for years. Parks was serving as volunteer field secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in 1955 and had been active in civil rights battles in Montgomery going back decades. She also served on the Women’s Political Council in the city, an organization that had been out front seeking equal rights for blacks. Parks had also attended the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, where she trained under civil rights activist Septima Clark in the art of racial desegregation. Thus, when she was arrested, she immediately agreed to become the test case that would challenge the Jim Crow bus system.
Rosa Parks’s famous act of protest did not come without personal sacrifice. She was declared a pariah in the city, lost her job as a seamstress, and received death threats. She eventually moved to Detroit, Michigan, where she lived until her death on October 24, 2005, at age 92.
Upon her death, Mrs. Parks laid in state at the U.S. Capitol rotunda for two days. More than 30,000 people paid their respects. National leaders spoke at her funeral, including then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama and former president Bill Clinton.
Now called “the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” Rosa Parks resisted such labels. She always said she was just trying to do what was right. She also said her act never had anything to do with being physically tired.
“The only tired I was,” Parks remarked years later, was “tired of giving in.”
She was an extraordinary human being, and we’re all in her debt.
Brian Gilmore is a poet and public interest lawyer.