Rosa Parks was an African American civil rights activist and a seamstress who is revered as the ‘Mother of the Black Civil Rights Movement’. She is well known as the one-woman protester who refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man in Alabama. But before she catalysed a movement for Black civil rights in America, Rosa joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1943 where she investigated criminal justice in Alabama.
At the NAACP, Rosa investigated and defended Black men from false accusations of lynching as well as inquiring into sexual assualt of Black women. This last issue was particularly close to Rosa’s heart as she had been sexually assaulted by a white neighbour in 1931. Rosa later reflected on the assault, “I was ready to die, but give up my consent never. Never, never.” In 1944 Rosa travelled to Abbeville, Alabama, to investigate the rape of Recy Taylor, a Black woman who was raped by seven white men. Due to the Jim Crow segregationist laws at the time, it was difficult to convince the Alabama court that even one of the white men had raped Recy Taylor. Rosa was undeterred and returned to the city of Montgomery where she promptly launched the Committee for Equal Justice for the Rights of Mrs. Recy Taylor. The committee gained national media attention and sparked protests in the South. On 9 October 1944, a grand jury refused to indict the defendants. Parks fired off a letter to the state’s governor asking him not to “fail to let the people of Alabama know that there is equal justice for all of our citizens.” To this day, no charges have been brought against the men.
In 1955, Rosa refused to move to the back of a segregated bus. She was arrested and her bold action galvanized a year long boycott of the Montgomery bus system. In 1956 the boycott ended when the Supreme Court decided to desegregate public transport. While this was a victory for the Black civil rights movement there was a cost to Rosa’s actions. She received threats and was unable to find work in Montgomery. She then moved to Detroit with her husband where from 1965 to 1988 she was a member of the staff of Michigan Congressman John Conyers, Jr. She continued her work at the NAACP and in 1987 she co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development to provide career training for young people. Rosa wrote several books and travelled across the country to speak to other activists.
In 2005 Rosa passed away and was immortalized as the first Black woman to be honored with a life-size statue in the National Statuary Hall of the Capitol. That sculpture depicts her on a pedestal, seated on a bus, looking straight ahead into the future. At the dedication ceremony, former President Obama commended Rosa Parks; “This morning, we celebrate a seamstress, slight of stature but mighty in courage…Rosa Parks held no elected office. She possessed no fortune; lived her life far from the formal seats of power. And yet today, she takes her rightful place among those who’ve shaped this nation’s course.”
Rosa is remembered as a courageous and radical spirit.