Symbol of civil rights effort dies

Pioneer sparked bus boycott by not giving up seat

Rosa Parks 1913 - 2005

October 25, 2005|By ELAINE WOO | ELAINE WOO,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Rosa Parks, the Alabama seamstress whose simple act of defiance on a segregated Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955 stirred the nonviolent protests of the modern civil rights movement and catapulted an unknown minister named Martin Luther King Jr. to international prominence, died yesterday of natural causes at her home in Detroit. She was 92.

Her death was announced by her longtime employer, Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat.

Often called the mother of the movement that led to the dismantling of institutionalized segregation in the South, Mrs. Parks became a symbol of human dignity when she was jailed for refusing to relinquish her bus seat to a white person when she was riding home from work on the evening of Dec. 1, 1955.

Her arrest for violating Alabama's bus segregation laws galvanized Montgomery's blacks, who boycotted the city's buses for 381 days until the U.S. Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional.

Memorialized in poetry, dance and song, Mrs. Parks was, by most accounts, both simpler and more complex than the mythology that grew around her.

She was born Feb. 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Ala., to Leona Edwards, a teacher, and James McCauley, a carpenter and builder. Her parents split up when she was 5, causing her mother to move Rosa and her younger brother Sylvester to live with family in Pine Level, a small town near Montgomery.

Some of her early memories were of white people who treated blacks kindly, particularly a Yankee soldier who said she was cute and "treated me like I was just another little girl, not a little black girl," Mrs. Parks wrote in her 1992 autobiography, Rosa Parks: My Story.

But she also remembered an old black man named Gus Vaughn who refused to work for whites. And she remembered how her grandfather kept a gun by his side to protect the family against raids by the Ku Klux Klan.

The earliest hint of the fortitude that would bolt her to a bus seat years later may have come when she 10. She had encountered on the road near home a white boy named Franklin, who uttered some offensive words and threatened to hit her. Young Rosa picked up a brick and dared him to strike. Franklin, she recalled, "thought better of the idea and went away."

She went to high school at a laboratory school run by the Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes, but was forced to drop out to care for her grandmother and later for her mother. She went back to school for her degree in 1933, after she married Raymond Parks, a Montgomery barber. Raymond Parks was also an activist in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

After her marriage, Mrs. Parks held a succession of jobs, from domestic worker to hospital aide. To get to work, she rode the bus, as the majority of blacks did. But black bus passengers had to follow certain rules. The first 10 seats were reserved for whites, even if no whites got on the bus. Blacks had to sit in the back rows or, if those were filled, stand up. If the white section filled up, some drivers ordered blacks to give up their seats.

The rules often varied according to the bus driver. Some drivers made black passengers board through the front door to pay their fare, then reenter through the back door to find a seat.

One day in 1943, Parks boarded a bus to register to vote. But the back of the bus was standing-room only. Instead of stepping off to go to the back door after paying her fare in front, Parks just walked down the aisle.

The driver, James Blake, demanded that she disembark and reboard at the rear of the bus. Parks got off and waited for the next bus. She swore to herself never to ride with that driver again.

But on a winter evening 12 years later, after a long day at work, Mrs. Parks got on a bus to go home, forgetting to check who was behind the wheel.

She was by then an active member of the NAACP and a recent graduate of Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, a training ground for civil rights workers.

She saw an empty seat in the middle of the bus - "no man's land" - and took it. At the next stop, the white section filled up and one white passenger was left standing. Blake told Mrs. Parks and the other three blacks in the front rows of the black section, "Let me have those front seats."

They all balked, at first. Then, after Blake ordered them up again, three complied. Mrs. Parks refused to budge.

The only words she spoke were "No" when he asked her if she was going to stand up, and "You may do that" when he said he would have her arrested.

She was not the first black to be arrested for defying the segregation rules; at least two other women that year had been jailed for the same offense. The NAACP wanted to challenge the law and had been on the lookout for someone who would make a good test case, but both of the first two women had something unsavory in their backgrounds which made them unsuitable plaintiffs.

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