November 12, 2021
And that's the tee... on Rosa Parks' heroic defiance
Happy Monday, Feministas! In this installment of “And That’s the Tee,” where we give you the deets on the inspiration behind some of our favorite graphic tees, we’re celebrating a woman who turned a single, spontaneous act of defiance into a moment that changed the course of history: Rosa Parks.
We all know her name and her claim to fame—that fateful night when she refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white man—but who was this woman? What gave her the courage to sit still and stand up for her community that cold night in December? And what happened next?
Here, we’ll answer all that and more, with a quick refresher on the legacy of Rosa Parks—the woman known as the “first lady” or “mother” of the civil rights movement, and a powerful catalyst for the end of racial segregation and social change. Let’s dig in.
Rosa Parks, the daughter of Black activists
Rosa Louise McCauley Parks was born on February 4, 1913, and grew up in Alabama. From the age of two, she lived with her mother and grandparents, Rose and Sylvester Edwards, both of whom were formerly enslaved and ardent advocates for racial equality.
So from an early age, Parks had a strong sense of the inequity she and her family faced, attending segregated schools which required Black students to walk when the white students were provided with transportation, and returning home each day to a place where bravery and advocacy were modeled by her family and instilled in her.
One of her biographers, Douglas Brinkley, once referred to her early upbringing as inspiration for her moral strength: “a lifetime’s education in justice—from her grandfather’s nightly vigils to the murder of Emmett Till— had strengthened her resolve to act when the time came.” At one point, she even witnessed her grandfather standing in front of their house with a shotgun as the Ku Klux Klan marched down their street.
“When I made that decision, I knew that I had the strength of my ancestors with me." — RP
In 1932, she met her future husband, Raymond Parks, a barber, self-educated activist, and a member of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). He was a true champion of her education and activism and, soon after their marriage, she graduated from high school and eventually joined the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, serving as secretary and youth leader until 1957.
Often, Parks is painted as a weary seamstress who, in the right place at the right time, unwittingly kicked off a movement. But it’s time we put that myth to rest. She was well-versed in the art of advocacy and believed deeply in the fight for racial equality, so that when the moment arose, her spur-of-the-moment defiance was practically reflexive—deciding once and for all that she’d had enough of these constant acts of injustice.
"They say I stayed seated because I was tired. But the only tired I was, was tired of giving in." — RP
Rosa Parks, the mother of a movement
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was on the way home from work at the Montgomery Fair department store. At that time, municipal buses were segregated by law, with the front reserved for white citizens and the seats in back relegated to Black citizens. These kinds of “Jim Crow” laws were demeaning and unjust—to say the least—but nevertheless were commonplace in public life in Alabama, with restrictions around everything from water fountains and restrooms to schools and libraries.
That evening, when a white man entered the bus to find all of the seats in the front taken, the bus driver asked the four people in the first row of the “colored” section to stand so that he could sit. Three riders moved, but Rosa Parks stayed put.
“The time had just come when I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed, I suppose. I had decided that I would have to know, once and for all, what rights I had as a human being, and a citizen.” — RP
When the driver threatened to call the police, Parks remained in place. When the police showed up, they took her into custody and the word of her arrest began to spread. When her husband showed up that evening to have her released on bail, local NAACP leader E.D. Nixon was by his side, sensing an opportunity in the moment.
He soon convinced Parks to become the plaintiff in a case to challenge the validity of segregation laws and helped organize their community’s historic response to this event: the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
On December 5, 1955, Parks was found guilty of violating segregation laws, and was fined $10 (plus $4 in court costs). But that’s not all that happened that day. The Black population of Montgomery rallied to boycott the buses in peaceful protest and solidarity, and participation was unprecedented.
Nixon and other community leaders formed the MIA (Montgomery Improvement Association) in the following weeks, taking advantage of that momentum, and elected none other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the organization's president.
"Stand for something or you will fall for anything. Today's mighty oak is yesterday's nut that held its ground." — RP
The result of their immediate and inspired actions? The boycott went on for an incredible 381 days, forcing the municipal bus system to de-segregate. During that time, remarkable change was made—in June of 1956, segregation was declared illegal, and on November 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional.
Rosa Parks, the first lady of civil rights
Following the Montgomery Bus Boycott and those important court decisions, Rosa Parks became a symbol of non-violent protest and strength in the face of injustice all across the country. Her bravery, along with her continued efforts alongside organizers like Nixon and Dr. King, sparked a movement, from nationwide fights to end racial segregation to other important legal battles for equality, eventually culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Despite her rise to fame and bravery within the movement, day-to-day life proved to be more challenging for Parks and her husband. They both lost their jobs within a year of her initial arrest and were constantly threatened and harassed by white citizens who preferred the status quo. Eventually, they moved to Detroit, Michigan, where she became an administrative aide in a congressional office until she retired in 1988.
Throughout her life and well into her retirement, she continued to inspire, traveling to participate in civil rights events and support the movement however she could. Following the death of her husband, she founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development to serve Detroit's youth.
“I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free ... so other people would be also free.” — RP
For her bravery and continued advocacy, she was recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and when she died on October 24, 2005, she became the first woman to lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.
Rosa Parks was the mother of a movement, a feminist icon, and an unwavering advocate for her community. We can do our part by remembering her the way she wished to be remembered—in all of her power, as a woman who wanted to be free and helped to free others in turn.
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