“We came to see that, it is more honourable to walk in dignity than ride in humiliation. So in a quiet dignified manner, we decided to substitute tired feet for tired souls, and walk the streets of Montgomery until the sagging walls of injustice had been crushed by the battering rams of surging justice” (Dr Martin Luther King JR).
History in the making
On the night of 4th November 2008 history was made when Barack Obama became the 44th and first African-American President of the United States of America. This unprecedented historical moment was the embodiment of the American Dream which prides itself on giving all American citizens an equal chance to succeed. However, perhaps this incredible feat would not have been achieved had there not been a woman who made a determined stand for justice and equality just over 60 years ago.
“First Lady” of the Civil Rights Movement
Born on the 4th February 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama, Rosa Louise McCauley Parks has been hailed by many, including the United States Congress, as the “Mother” or “First Lady” of the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa’s mother, Leona (nee Edwards) was a teacher and her father, James McCauley, was a carpenter. Rosa’s ancestry through her grandparents was a varied mix of Scottish, Irish and Native American. Rosa’s parents separated when she was very young. As a child, she grew up on a farm with her maternal grandparents, mother and her younger brother, Sylvester. Rosa was a relatively petite child for her age with poor health. The family were all members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Rosa attended school right up until secondary age when she dropped out to take care of her mother and grandmother when they became unwell. Then in 1932 Rosa married Raymond Parks, a barber in Montgomery who also worked alongside the National Advancement Association for Coloured People (NAACP) – an influential movement which fought for the rights of African-Americans.
Challenging the system
Since 1876 American states had been governed by what were known as the “Jim Crow Laws” which stated the need for “separate but equal” facilities for Black Americans. This meant that there was a system of segregation in schools, restaurants, theatres, hospitals and places of work. However, on 1st December 1955, this system of segregation underwent its most challenging test yet. While leaving her job as a seamstress, Rosa waited and then took her place at the back of the segregated bus. When it became full and a white gentleman got on and asked Rosa to vacate her seat she politely refused. This she did a second time when the bus driver threatened her of police involvement. Rosa was arrested for disobeying segregation laws. Prominent figures within the church and the NAACP were unhappy with this and so along with Civil Rights Leader, DR. Martin Luther King Jr, they led African-Americans in a nation wide boycott of the buses on the 5th of December 1955 which lasted for a year before the US Justice system relented by changing the law in favour of desegregated buses on 20th December 1956. African-Americans had no idea of the positive impact their simple act of non-violent resistance along with Rosa’s determination to fight injustice would have in American history. As she said herself in her 1994 autobiography, Quiet Strength: “Our mistreatment was not right, and I was tired of it. The more we gave in, the worse they treated us. I knew someone had to take the first step. So I made up my mind not to move. I had no idea that history was being made. I was just tired of giving in. I felt that what I did was right and I did not think about the consequences.”
An unforgettable legacy
After winning many accolades and awards later on in life for her heroic act of defiance and bravery, Rosa Parks (aged 92) died on the 24th October 2005 in Detroit, Michigan and became the first woman and third non-US government official to lie in honour at the Capital Rotunda.
“It was so unbelievable that this woman had the courage to take a seat and refuse to get up and give it to a white gentleman. By sitting down, she was standing up for all Americans” (US Congressman and Civil Rights Activist – John Lewis).
Darell J Philip is a freelance writer who also blogs at: darellphilip.wordpress.com