Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Parks, Rosa

Rosa Louise McCauley Parks was born in Tuskegee, Alabama on February 4, 1913. She grew up during a time when segregation dominated most facets of life in the American South. From a young age, she was witness to racial discrimination and violence, including a highly active local Ku Klux Klan.

McCauley’s parents separated shortly after the birth of her brother in 1915 when she, her mother and brother went to live with her maternal grandparents outside Montgomery, Alabama. Rosa was forced to leave high school to help attend her dying grandmother, then her ill mother. In December 1932 she married Raymond Parks, who encouraged her to get her diploma, which she did the following year. A decade later Parks joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and later became secretary for its Montgomery chapter.

On December 1, 1955, returning home from work on a city bus, Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, as required by law. The driver threatened to have her arrested and she did not resist. A common misconception is that Parks remained in her seat because she was tired. Rather, she stayed because she was, in her own words, “tired of giving in.” Parks was immediately arrested and charged with violating a city ordinance, an act that would forever affect the course of race relations in this country.

Her actions sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, propelling Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement into the forefront of national attention. Because Parks was an upstanding citizen with a husband, job and a political conscience, she made an ideal face of the movement.

On December 5, the day of Parks’ trial, African Americans, led by the NAACP and other community leaders, united in a massive boycott of Montgomery public buses. Tens of thousands of people abandoned buses and walked, sometimes as far as 20 miles, for a total of 381 days. Besides crippling the transit system, the boycott initiated a federal lawsuit against segregation policies. On November 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation of buses unconstitutional.

After her arrest, Parks lost her job as a seamstress and moved north to Detroit where her brother Sylvester lived. From 1965-1988 she worked as an administrative aide to U.S. Representative John Conyers. She wrote several books, including an autobiography entitled Rosa Parks: My Story. Ten years after the 1977 death of her husband, Parks founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development to empower youth and educate them about civil rights.

Later in life, Parks was bestowed with numerous honorary degrees and national awards, including the NAACP’s esteemed Spingarn Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented to her in 1996 by President Bill Clinton. A Michigan public act established Rosa Parks Day, celebrated on the first Monday following her February 4 birthday.

Rosa Parks was 92 years old when she died in her Detroit home on October 24, 2005. The front seats of city buses in Detroit and Montgomery were adorned with black ribbons in the days preceding her funeral. Fifty thousand people visited her casket as it rested for two days in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol, the first woman to receive this honor. A seven-hour funeral service was held for her at the Greater Grace Temple Church in Detroit, followed by a procession in which thousands of people came to celebrate one of the bravest and most influential figures of the 20th century. Rosa Parks is buried in Detroit’s Woodlawn cemetery.



Memorial card from services for Rosa Parks, 2005 - 2006.063.001

Rosa Parks receiving guests at the Detroit Historical Museum, 1970s - 2013.041.567

View all items related to Rosa Parks