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Rosa Parks was an American activist in the civil rights movement. She played an important role in the Montgomery bus boycott. But who is Rosa, where did she grow up, what did she do and why is she famous?
Rosa Parks was called ‘the first lady of civil rights’ and ‘the mother of the freedom movement’ by the United States Congress.
She was born on 4th February, 1913 in Alabama, USA. She died at the age of 92 on 24th October, 2005.
Her mother was a teacher and her father was a carpenter. When her parents separated, Rosa and her younger brother moved with her mother to her maternal grandparents farm near Montgomery in Alabama.
The civil rights movement happened between 1954 and 1968 in the United States of America. Its supporters set out to end institutionalised racial discrimination and racial segregation in the USA.
African Americans and other people who agreed with the cause took part in nonviolent protests, resistance and civil disobedience to get new laws protecting the human rights of all Americans.
At the time in America, African Americans did not have the same rights as White Americans. The country was segregated by race. Some of the things the civil rights movement wanted to change included allowing children with different racial backgrounds to go to the same schools, everyone to have the same rights, for example equal access to seats on busses and allowing interracial marriages.
The United Nations list 30 human rights everyone should be granted. The first five are:
Can you spot any human rights that were not being met in the United States of America during the civil rights movement?
Civil rights protect each person's freedom from being taken away by governments, organisations and individuals. They protect each person’s physical and mental safety and protects them from discrimination.
Political rights include getting a fair trial, the right to protest and the right to vote.
Can you spot any civil or political rights that were not being met in the United States of America during the civil rights movement?
In 1900 Montgomery passed a law saying bus passengers had to be separated by race. Conductors were allowed to make African Americans give up their seats for white passengers and that white passengers didn’t have to share a row of seats with non-white passengers. The law also said that non-white passengers had to board the bus at the front to pay, then get off the bus again and get on at the back. Sometimes passengers who had paid would not be able to board the bus again before it departed.
One day in 1943, Rosa Parks boarded a bus and paid the fare. The bus driver was called Blake. He made her get off and board again at the back of the bus but he drove off without her.
On Thursday 1st December, 1955, when Rosa was 42 years old she boarded a bus to go home after work. The bus driver was Blake. Rosa sat in a seat in the first row of seats allowed for non-white passengers. After a while the seats allocated for white passengers filled up and the driver told the four people in Rosa’s row of seats to stand up so a white passenger could sit down. The other three passengers stood up but Rosa didn’t. Rosa moved towards the window making room for the other passenger.
When asked why she hadn't stood up, Rosa responded, "I don't think I should have to stand up."
She said "When he [Blake] saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, 'No, I'm not.' And he said, 'Well, if you don't stand up, I'm going to have to call the police and have you arrested.' I said, 'You may do that.'”
Rosa explained she didn’t stand up because she was tired of giving in and being pushed around.
She was arrested, charged and found guilty of violating the segregation law and disorderly conduct. Rosa Parks appealed her conviction and challenged the legality of racial segregation.
Rosa was not the first person to resist bus segregation, but the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) believed that she was a good representative of their cause. Rosa Parks was seen as a responsible person with a good reputation, partly because she was married and employed. She played an important role in raising international awareness of what African Americans were facing and their civil rights struggles.
As a reaction to Rosa’s arrest, on Sunday, 4th December, 1955 plans for a bus boycott were announced. The people boycotting the bus decided they would do it until they were treated with the level of courtesy they expected. They wanted the hiring black bus drivers to be allowed and the passenger seats to be allocated on a first come first served basis.
The bus boycott lasted 381 days. Lots of public busses stood empty for months, which severely damaged the bus companies finances. Eventually it was ruled by the courts that the Montgomery buses would be integrated. This meant that everyone using the busses had the same rights.
Rosa Parks lost her job in the department store and got a new job as a seamstress. Her husband also had to leave his job as his employer forbade him from talking about his wife or legal case. They had to move from Montgomery, Alabama to Hampton, Virginia.
Rosa Parks' case moved slowly through the appeals court. On 13th November, 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional.
Despite the difficulties and dangers, the NAACP and other organisations continued to fight for what they believed in. Without these brave people, America (and the rest of the world) might be a very different place.
Did you know….? The Montgomery Bus Boycott inspired the bus boycott in Bristol, England, in 1963.
After the boycott Rosa became a spokesperson for the civil rights movement and later wrote a book about her experiences. She died in 2005 at the age of 92. She was the first woman to lie in state in the U.S. Capital. This honour is usually reserved for a statesperson or military leader. More than 30,000 people visited her coffin to pay their respects.
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