On February 4, 1913, a little girl named Rosa Louise McCauley was born. She suffered from chronic tonsillitis as a child, leaving her bedridden and in pain. Yet she would grow to become one of the most iconic figures of the Civil Rights Movement.
Rosa became aware of the reality of her environment quickly—and she was not afraid to push back. Although her bus protest has often been framed as a coincidence (she was tired, she didn’t want to get up, the bus driver happened to be one who would pitch a fit over a black woman sitting in the wrong seat), the seeds of her activism were planted young.
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Until Rosa was 11, she walked to her small, old rural school in Pine Level, Alabama. Each day, as she walked, she would watch white students pass her on way to their new school, on their bus. Rosa often cited this and a local Ku Klux Klan rally as the beginnings of her realization that the world was different for her as a young black girl.
At 19, Rosa married Raymond Parks. He was a barber and member of the local branch of the NAACP. During the early years of her marriage, Raymond encouraged Rosa to return to school. She received her high school diploma in 1933. By 1943, Rosa was a member of the Montgomery NAACP in her own right and had been elected as secretary of the branch.
She was secretary for over 10 years, during which time she investigated the rape of Recy Taylor, recently mentioned in Oprah Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech. She held a number of jobs during these years, including a position at the Maxwell Airforce Base, where she was able to ride on an integrated trolley to work. Rosa often cited this experience as the impetus for her eventual protest.
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December 1, 1955 is known as the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott, but even that day was not the first time Rosa had been affected by the bus seating system. Rosa had also donated to the legal funds for two other, younger black women who had also been thrown off buses for refusing to give up their seats. She had long known that when (not if) she was told to get up for a white person, she would not do so.
When that day came for Rosa, the NAACP took advantage. Rosa was older, had a steady job, was married, and seemed “respectable”, even to white people. She was also a light-skinned black woman, unlike the two younger women who had been removed from buses earlier in 1955.
These factors all combined to make Rosa the perfect candidate to become the face of the Montgomery bus boycott. Although the boycott engendered action, and eventually a federal court ruling that bus segregation was unconstitutional, Rosa’s incredible visibility harmed her personally.
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Before the protests began, Rosa had been working at a local department store. The store quickly fired her. Meanwhile, her husband was told he could not speak about Rosa or the boycott at work: In solidarity, he quit. The two moved to Hampton, Virginia, where Rosa was able to find work at the HCBU.
After the protests ended, Rosa continued her activism behind the scenes. She worked for John Conyers, supported the Selma march, worked with political prisoners, founded a scholarship fund, and much, much more. Rosa passed away at 92 in October 2005. Her impact will continue to be felt for generations.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons