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ROSA PARKS / 1913-2005

She Set Wheels of Justice in Motion

Her refusal to yield a bus seat to a white man in 1955 was a first step in the march to end U.S. segregation.

October 25, 2005|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Rosa Parks, the Alabama seamstress whose simple act of defiance on a segregated Montgomery 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 Monday of natural causes at her home in Detroit. She was 92.

Often called the mother of the movement that led to the dismantling of institutionalized segregation in the South, Parks became a symbol of human dignity when she was jailed for refusing to relinquish her bus seat to a white man when she rode 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.

"Her legacy was her quiet dignity and instinctive rage against injustice," Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) told the Times on Monday night. "What she determined on the spot was that her dignity would not allow her to be treated unjustly."

A candlelight vigil in Parks' honor will be held at 6:30 tonight at Leimert Park, 4395 Leimert Blvd., Los Angeles.

Memorialized in poetry, dance and song, 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, prompting 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," 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 from raids by the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s.

The earliest hint of the fortitude that would bolt her to a bus seat years later may have come when she was 10. On the road near home, she had encountered 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."

Her grandmother was horrified by Rosa's behavior. You'll be lynched before you turn 20 if you keep standing up to whites, she scolded.

Parks once speculated that the urge to stand up to oppressors may have come from protecting her little brother from bullies. Whatever the cause, "I do know," she wrote, "that I had a very strong sense of what was fair."

Her mother was her only teacher until she was 11, when she was sent to the Montgomery Industrial School. Founded and staffed by whites to educate black children, the school was burned down twice by arsonists and the faculty was ostracized by the white community.

Parks took academic classes there, as well as some vocational training. But she said the most important lesson she learned "was that I was a person with dignity and self-respect, and I should not set my sights lower than anybody else just because I was black."

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 NAACP and helped raise money to defend the nine black men accused in the Scottsboro rape case, one of the most sensational racial trials of the Depression era. He was the first man aside from her grandfather with whom Parks could discuss racial conditions, and it impressed her that he was not afraid of whites.

After her marriage, 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. If the white section filled up, some drivers ordered blacks to give up their seats.

Bus drivers determined the rules. Some drivers made black passengers board through the front door to pay their fare, then reenter through the back door to find a seat. If they were unlucky, the bus would take off before they had a chance to get back on.

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 walked down the aisle.

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