On October 24, 2005, Rosa Parks, the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” died in Detroit. She had earned that appellation fifty years earlier when she refused to move from her seat on a segregated bus in her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama.
It was December 1, 1955. Parks was coming home from a long day as a seamstress in a local department store. Although seated in the first row of “colored” seats, Parks ignored the white bus driver’s demand to move to the back of the bus to free up more seats for white patrons. Even after the bus driver threatened, “I’ll have you arrested,” Parks did not budge. A couple of minutes later, two policemen got on the bus and asked her to move. She asked, “Why do you push us around?” He responded, “I don’t know. But the law is the law and you are under arrest.”
Active in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and an outspoken opponent of segregation, the 42-year-old Parks spent a short time in jail. Her actions, however, changed her life considerably and provided a spark for the fledgling Civil Rights Movement.
The day after Parks’ arrest, blacks in Montgomery, the city’s primary bus riders, refused to ride the bus. As the 382-day bus boycott dragged on, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional. Both events played crucial roles in putting the Civil Rights Movement in motion.
During the boycott, Parks and her family received threats and were continually harassed. She later recalled these threats drove her husband to “near-suicidal despair.” Shortly after the boycott began, she also lost her job. Blacklisted by Montgomery’s white business community, Parks and her husband moved north to Detroit in 1957.
In Michigan, Parks took in sewing and worked as a fundraiser for the NAACP. In 1965, Congressman John Conyers hired her to manage his Detroit office. After the death of her husband in 1987, she founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development. The Institute is designed to motivate and direct young people of either race to achieve their highest potential. In 1996, President William Clinton presented Parks with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor an American citizen can receive.
To learn more about Michigan’s transportation past, check out the current issues of Michigan History or Michigan History for Kids magazines. For more information or a free trial issue, call (800) 366-3703 or visit http://www.michiganhistorymagazine.com/.
PHOTO CREDIT: Photograph by Associated Press. 1964. Appears in Images of 20th Century African American Activists at the Library of Congress.