Civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks dies

Rosa Lee Parks, whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man sparked the modern civil rights movement, has died at age 92.

Parks died on Monday evening at her home during the evening of natural causes, with close friends by her side, said Gregory Reed, an attorney who represented her for the past 15 years.

Parks was 42 when she committed an act of defiance in 1955 that was to change the course of American history and earn her the title of “mother of the civil rights movement”.

At that time, segregation laws in place since the post-Civil War Reconstruction required separation of the races in buses, restaurants and public accommodations throughout the South, while legally sanctioned racial discrimination kept blacks out of many jobs and neighbourhoods in the North.

The Montgomery, Alabama, seamstress, an active member of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), was riding on a city bus on December 1 1955 when a white man demanded her seat.

Parks refused, despite rules requiring blacks to yield their seats to whites. Two black Montgomery women had been arrested earlier that year on the same charge, but Parks was jailed. She also was fined $14.

Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said he feels a personal tie to the civil rights icon.

“She stood up by sitting down. I’m only standing here because of her.”

The Reverend Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist, called Parks “a gentle woman whose single act changed the most powerful nation in the world ... One of the highlights of my life was meeting and getting to know her.”

‘I had no idea it would turn into this’

Speaking in 1992, Parks said history too often maintains “that my feet were hurting and I didn’t know why I refused to stand up when they told me. But the real reason of my not standing up was I felt that I had a right to be treated as any other passenger. We had endured that kind of treatment for too long.”

Her arrest triggered a 381-day boycott of the bus system organised by a then little-known Baptist minister, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jnr, who later earned the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

“At the time I was arrested, I had no idea it would turn into this,” Parks said 30 years later. “It was just a day like any other day. The only thing that made it significant was that the masses of the people joined in.”

The Montgomery bus boycott, which came one year after the Supreme Court’s landmark declaration that separate schools for blacks and whites were “inherently unequal”, marked the start of the modern civil rights movement in the US.

The movement culminated in the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act, which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations.

After taking her public stand for civil rights, Parks had trouble finding work in Alabama. Amid threats and harassment, she and her husband, Raymond, moved to Detroit in 1957. She worked as an aide in the Detroit office of Democratic US Representative John Conyers from 1965 until retiring in 1988. Raymond died in 1977.

Parks became a revered figure in Detroit, where a street and middle school were named for her and a papier mâché likeness of her was featured in the city’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

Parks said upon retiring from her job with Conyers that she wanted to devote more time to the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development. The institute, incorporated in 1987, is devoted to developing leadership among Detroit’s young people and initiating them into the struggle for civil rights.

Books and awards

Rosa Parks: My Story was published in February 1992. In 1994, she brought out Quiet Strength: The Faith, the Hope and the Heart of a Woman Who Changed a Nation, and in 1996 a collection of letters called Dear Mrs Parks: A Dialogue with Today’s Youth.

She was among the civil rights leaders who addressed the Million Man March in October 1995.

In 1996, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to civilians making outstanding contributions to American life. In 1999, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Parks received dozens of other awards, ranging from induction into the Alabama Academy of Honor to an NAACP Image Award for her 1999 appearance on the CBS television drama series Touched by an Angel.

The Rosa Parks Library and Museum opened in November 2000 in Montgomery. The museum features a 1955-era bus and a video that recreates the conversation that preceded Parks’s arrest.

“Are you going to stand up?” the bus driver asked.

“No,” Parks answered.

“Well, by God, I’m going to have you arrested,” the driver said.

“You may do that,” Parks responded.

Troubled years

Parks’s later years were not without difficult moments. In 1994, Parks’s home was invaded by a 28-year-old man who beat her and took $53. She was treated at a hospital and released. The man, Joseph Skipper, pleaded guilty, blaming the crime on his drug problem.

The Parks Institute struggled financially since its inception.

The charity’s principal activity—the annual Pathways to Freedom bus tour taking students to the sites of key events in the civil rights movement—routinely cost more money than the institute could raise.

Parks lost a 1999 lawsuit that sought to prevent the hip-hop duo OutKast from using her name as the title of a Grammy-nominated song. In 2000, she threatened legal action against an Oklahoma man who planned to auction internet domain name rights to “www.rosaparks.com”.

After losing the OutKast lawsuit, attorney Gregory Reed, who represented Parks, said his client “has once again suffered the pains of exploitation”. A later suit against OutKast’s record company was settled out of court.

She was born Rosa Louise McCauley on February 4 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama. Family illness interrupted her high-school education, but after she married Raymond in 1932, he encouraged her and she earned a diploma in 1934. He also inspired her to become involved in the NAACP.

Looking back in 1988, Parks said she worried that black young people took legal equality for granted.

Older blacks, she said “have tried to shield young people from what we have suffered. And in so doing, we seem to have a more complacent attitude.

“We must double and redouble our efforts to try to say to our youth, to try to give them an inspiration, an incentive and the will to study our heritage and to know what it means to be black in America today.”

At a celebration in her honour that same year, she said: “I am leaving this legacy to all of you ... to bring peace, justice, equality, love and a fulfilment of what our lives should be. Without vision, the people will perish, and without courage and inspiration, dreams will die—the dream of freedom and peace.”—Sapa-AP

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