Rosa Parks (1913-2005), an American department-store seamstress, set off the civil rights movement that overthrew Jim Crow (American apartheid) when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in 1955. By the 1990s she was a sainted figure of American history, the kind that schoolchildren have to do reports on. In Caucasian Mythology she and Martin Luther King ended racism in America.
On Thursday December 1st 1955 on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to give up her seat to a white man:
I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.
The driver threatened to call the police. She said, “You may do that,” pushing her wire frame glasses back up her nose. She was the secretary of the city’s NAACP! They’ve messed with the wrong one now.
She was the perfect victim: she was “a churchgoer who looked like the symbol of Mother’s Day”. She had nothing the press could destroy her name with – no child out-of-wedlock like Claudette Colvin, no drunken father like Mary Louise Smith, both of whom were arrested for the same thing earlier that year.
Part of what made Parks determined was Emmett Till: a 14-year-old black boy whom two white men savagely beat and killed in August for whistling at a white woman. The all-white jury found them not guilty. They walked free. The picture of what remained of Emmett Till’s face was burned into the brain of probably every grown black person in the country.
Parks was arrested on a Thursday. Over the weekend the Women’s Political Council, the NAACP and the black churches got the word out to every black person in the city not to ride the buses on Monday. Monday came and in the dark December morning the buses rolled down the streets – empty! Bus after bus. Black Montgomery stood solidly behind her!
And not just on that day but on the 380 days that followed – till the Supreme Court forced the bus company to let blacks sit wherever they wanted.
A young, unknown pastor was chosen as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott because he had no enemies: Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.
Montgomery Fair, the department store Parks worked for, fired her. Few in the city would hire her or her husband, a barber. They moved to Detroit where her brother lived. From 1965 till she retired in 1987 she worked as a secretary for John Conyers, a black Congressman. The 1967 Detroit riot broke out a mile from her house.
She was at the March on Washington in 1963, Selma in 1965 and the Million Man March in 1995.
When she died in 2005 at 92 she became the first woman ever to lie in state in the Capitol building, just like the presidents.