Women’s History Month is a great opportunity to commemorate the contributions of God-fearing women in American history. Women have played an important role in our nation’s history and the women in this series represent those who have faithfully, courageously, and humbly served their families, communities, and our nation. Don’t miss our previous installment on Abigail Adams, Fanny Crosby, Harriet Tubman, and Clara Barton.
Born and raised during the Jim Crow era, Rosa Parks became known as “The Mother of the Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement.” Although she is best remembered for refusing to give up her seat on a bus, she also believed that taking a stand for equal rights was invaluable. Rosa had a tenacious and fiery disposition, but she believed that her strength was not her own, once declaring, “God has always given me the strength to say what is right.” Her endurance and faith spurred her on through the darkest nights and the lowest valleys, and her legacy continues to inspire today.
Rosa Louise McCauley Parks was born on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama. Her parents separated when Rosa was only two years old, shortly after her brother Sylvester was born. She and her mother and brother moved to live with her maternal grandparents on their farm outside Montgomery. Rosa’s grandparents were former slaves and early advocates of the civil rights movement. She recalled her grandfather standing by the front door with a gun as the Ku Klux Klan marched down their street.
Rosa’s life with her grandparents was extremely formative. In her autobiography, she reflected:
Every day before supper and before we went to services on Sundays, my grandmother would read the Bible to me, and my grandfather would pray. We even had devotions before going to pick cotton in the fields. Prayer and the Bible became a part of my everyday thoughts and beliefs. I learned to put my trust in God and to seek Him as my strength.
Rosa would continue to attend church her whole life. She was greatly inspired by the stories of other Christians who took a stand for their rights as she considered how she would stand up for her own.
When Rosa was 11, she began attending Miss White’s Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, a private Christian school. Her education continued at Booker T. Washington Junior High and Alabama State Teachers College, a high school. However, Rosa returned home before graduating to care for her dying grandmother and ill mother. Because she had not finished her education, Rosa took a position as a seamstress.
When Rosa was 19, she met Raymond Parks, a barber, who proposed to Rosa on their second date. They were married on December 18, 1932, and never had any children together.
Raymond encouraged Rosa to go back to school the following year and earn her high school diploma. After graduation, she worked as a secretary at Maxwell Air Force base, which was going through desegregation. Rosa and Raymond both became members of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1934. As chapter secretary, Rosa documented the most violent acts committed against blacks. The Racy Taylor case became national news because of Rosa’s work. In 1947, her reputation as a fiery activist grew, and she was asked to speak at the NAACP convention, where she received a standing ovation.
However, the civil rights movement began to change when Brown v. Board of Education was decided on May 17, 1954. As desegregation began in the schools, the NAACP believed it was time for the buses to desegregate as well. Rosa Parks was not the first black woman to refuse to give up her seat, but her story lit the flame.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa boarded a Montgomery city bus after a long day of work and sat in the middle section next to three black men. The bus driver, James Blake, was notorious for harassing black passengers. When a white man boarded the bus, Blake approached Rosa’s row and asked her and the other three black passengers to move to the back to make room for the white passenger. They all refused at first, but after the harassment continued, the other three all moved. Rosa did not move and remained seated alone. Blake threatened to call the police, to which she calmly replied, “You may do that.” Rosa later recalled:
I instantly felt God give me the strength to endure whatever would happen next, God’s peace flooded my soul, and my fear melted away. All people were equal in the eyes of God, and I was going to live like a free person.
Rosa was arrested and taken into police custody but was released on bail that same evening. She was later fined $14 but never paid the fine. Martin Luther King Jr. heard what happened and initiated plans for a bus boycott in Montgomery. Thirty-five thousand flyers were distributed, and the boycott began on the morning of Rosa’s trial. The boycott lasted for 381 days and was nearly 100 percent successful.
Although in many ways Rosa was the spark of the boycott, she was ignored and abandoned by many of her fellow black friends who said she was just stirring up trouble for them. She also lost her second job as a seamstress in January 1956. Rosa and Raymond’s reputations began to be slandered, and they received numerous death threats. Her husband was so overwhelmed that he suffered a nervous breakdown. In November 1956, a federal court ruled in favor of desegregating buses in Montgomery. After the law was first implemented, Rosa was photographed riding the bus next to reporter Nicholas C. Chriss, a white man, on December 21, 1956 (see image above).
Due to their continued harassment and financial struggles, Rosa and her husband moved to Hampton, Virginia and then Detroit, Michigan in 1957 to live with her brother and his family. While there, her health declined and she developed stomach ulcers, but struggled to afford the necessary medication. Thankfully, Raymond found employment and they became more financially stable for a time. The civil rights movement that Rosa helped spark led to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race.
Between 1977 and 1979, Rosa’s husband, brother, and mother all died of cancer. Rosa dedicated herself to civil rights advocacy and continued to receive death threats for most of her life. President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996. In 1999, she was also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
Rosa Parks died on October 24, 2005 in Detroit, Michigan. She was the first woman and the second African American to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda. On February 4, 2013, on the centennial of her birth, her statue was unveiled in the Capitol. In life, Rosa saw it as her duty to stand strong in the face of grave injustice but also realized that the strength she needed could only come from God.