Fearless Women in History: Rosa Parks

Fearless Women in History: Rosa Parks

It was a moment that changed history. On December 1, 1955, a woman riding home from her seamstress job in Montgomery, Alabama decided she would not give up her seat for a male passenger. At that moment she became one of the fearless women in history.

That woman was African American civil rights activist Rosa Parks. Her arrest that day for not surrendering her seat for a white man sparked a citywide bus boycott that lasted a year, elevating a young civil rights leader named Martin Luther King Jr.

Although it’s that one moment that activist Rosa Parks is remembered for, it was part of her lifelong commitment to the civil rights movement. Over the years, she had repeatedly disobeyed bus segregation regulations. She had even previously been removed from a bus for her defiance. 

“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear,” she said.

When her arrest inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began the day of her trial and lasted 381 days, she was serving as the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, a position she had held for 12 years. She had undergone desegregation training. She was a woman well prepared to make history.

“During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, we came together and remained unified for 381 days,” Parks wrote in her autobiography. “It has never been done again. The Montgomery boycott became the model for human rights throughout the world.”

On the day that made her famous as a fearless woman in history, African American civil rights activist Rosa Parks was sitting behind the designated “whites only” section of the crowded bus. The driver, upon noticing that there were white passengers standing in the aisle, asked Parks and other African American passengers in the four seats of the first row of the “colored” section to stand, in effect adding another row to the “white” section. The three others obeyed. Rosa Parks did not.

“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true,” Parks wrote. I was not tired physically… No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

Rosa Parks was arrested and fined $10 for the offense and $4 for court costs, neither of which she paid. Instead, she decided to work with the NAACP to appeal her conviction and challenge the legality of segregation in Alabama. 

During the bus boycott, the African American citizens of Montgomery walked, carpooled, and took taxis rather than city buses. They remained steadfast despite bad weather, harassment, and the loss of their jobs. Rosa, who was let go from her job, began setting up rides and working to increase public support for the NAACP and the Montgomery Improvement Association, led by the young pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr. People outside Montgomery began to support the cause and protests of segregated restaurants, pools, and other public facilities spread all over the United States.

“If we are wrong, justice is a lie, love has no meaning,” Martin Luther King told the crowd after announcing the boycott. “And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The Montgomery Improvement Association filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of bus segregation ordinances. On November 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling that bus segregation violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, which led to the successful end of the bus boycott on December 20, 1956.

With an international profile as an African American civil rights activist, Rosa Parks received death threats, intimidation and harassment. She and her family moved to Detroit for their safety. From 1965 to 1988 she worked on the staff of Michigan Congressman John Conyers, Jr. In 1987 she cofounded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development to provide career training for young people and offer teenagers the opportunity to learn about the history of the civil rights movement.

Activist Rosa Parks’s principled defiance established her as an international symbol of human dignity and freedom. She was given many awards and honors, including more than forty honorary doctoral degrees from universities. African American civil rights activist Rosa Parks was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton in 1996 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. When she died at age 92 on October 24, 2005, she became the first woman in the nation’s history to lie in honor at the U.S. Capitol.

The courage that African American civil rights activist Rosa Parks showed throughout her life is the inspiration for our Fearless pendant that honors fearless women in history. And a portion of every Girl Up Collection purchase funds leadership training for the female leaders of the future.

“We must have courage—determination—to go on with the task of becoming free—not only for ourselves, but for the nation and the world,” Parks said.

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