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5 facts about Rosa Parks

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December 1, 2015

Today marks 60 years since Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, an act that helped to spark the civil rights movement of the 1950-60s. Here are five facts you should know about the "the mother of the freedom movement":

1. Until her non-violent protest in 1955, Rosa Parks lived a relatively quiet life in Montgomery, Alabama. She worked primarily as a seamstress, and volunteered with the local chapter of the NAACP, which she served as the group’s secretary. Parks, a lifelong devoted Christian, also served as a deaconess at a local African Methodist Episcopal Church. However, in 1955 her refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man—as required by the state’s segregation law—helped sparked a nationwide protest movement and propelled her into the spotlight as “the first lady of civil rights."

2. Parks actions were partially inspired by her experience working on Maxwell Field, a military base on which public transportation was integrated. “I could ride on an integrated trolley on the base,” said Parks, “but when I left the base, I had to ride home on a segregated bus.” In Rosa Parks: My Story, she adds, "You might just say Maxwell opened my eyes up. It was an alternative reality to the ugly policies of Jim Crow." But her refusal to give up her seat was also inspired by an encounter with a particularly nasty and bigoted bus driver, James F. Blake. In November 1943 Parks entered Blake’s bus, and when told to enter by the back door, refused his command. She would avoid his bus for more than a decade. Twelve years later, though, she got on Blake’s bus by accident—and once again refused to comply with his orders. As historian Douglas Brinkley says, “her act of civil disobedience was partially the result of her personal revulsion to one particular bus driver.”

3. Parks’ protest wasn’t premeditated, but her friends and allies realized her arrest would make an ideal civil-rights test case. Parks agreed, despite concerns expressed by her husband and her mother about her safety and her employment. However, it was another woman, Jo Ann Robinson of the Women’s Political Council, who took the initiative to start the bus boycott. Robinson contacted Parks’ lawyer, E.D. Nixon, who organized Montgomery’s black leaders to meet to plan their strategy for the boycott and for Parks' legal defense. After hearing Park tell her story, the ministers agreed to promote a Monday bus boycott during their Sunday morning sermons.

4. Although the boycott had only been intended to last one day, many of the city’s activists recognized the potential that was presented by Parks' quiet protest. On the day of the boycott, Nixon and two other black leaders decided to form the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to oversee an extension of the bus boycott. That evening a young, relatively unknown minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., was elected as the president of MIA. King’s rousing speech at the meeting was a catalyst for his future fame and achievements. Parks had not only inspired a movement, she helped bring rise to one of its greatest leaders.

5. As a leader of the thirteen-month boycott, Parks became unemployable in Montgomery. She and her husband moved to Detroit where she once again worked as a seamstress. In 1965, Parks quit her job to join the staff of Michigan Congressman John Conyers, who she had helped elect. She worked in Conyers' office until her retirement in 1988 at the age of seventy-five. Upon her death in 2005, her body was transported to Washington, D.C.—in a bus similar to the one in which she made her protest—to lie in honor in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. She was the first woman and the second black person to lie in state in the Capitol.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is the author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington location in Arlington, Virginia. Read More