NPR

Civil Rights Icon Rosa Parks Dies

Rosa Parks, the woman known as the "mother of the civil rights movement," has died. Parks turned the course of American history by refusing in 1955 to give up her seat on a bus for a white man.

In 1999, when former President Bill Clinton presented Parks with the Congressional Gold Medal, he said her short bus ride went a long way for civil rights.

Born Rosa Louise McCauley on Feb. 4, 1913, she married Raymond Parks in 1932. By the early 1950s, Rosa Parks and her now deceased husband were long-time activists in Montgomery Alabama's chapter of the NAACP.

Parks worked as a seamstress at a local department store, and on her way home from work one day, she engaged in a simple gesture of defiance that galvanized the civil rights movement.

It was nearly 50 years ago, Dec. 1, 1955, when Parks challenged the South's Jim Crow laws -- and Montgomery's segregated bus seating policy -- by refusing to get up and give her seat to a white passenger.

When the police officer boarded the bus, Parks, who was 42, had one question for him: "I said, 'Why do you push us around?' He said, 'I do not know, but the law is the law and you are under arrest.' "

Parks' grass roots activism had prepared her for this moment. She had attended a session the summer before at the Highlander Folk Center, the educational center for workers' rights and racial equality in Tennessee. Several years earlier she had been thrown off a bus by the same bus driver.

There were other black women in Montgomery who were arrested in 1955 for violating the segregated busing policy. But this time, the black community fought back in force. The NAACP had been looking for a test case to challenge segregated busing and Parks agreed to let the group take her case.

Parks lost her job and had trouble finding work in Alabama after her public stance. She and her husband moved to Detroit. For many years she worked as an aide to Congressman John Conyers, and she remained a committed activist. In the 1980s, she worked in the anti-apartheid movement and also opened a career counseling center for black youth in Detroit.

She received numerous awards and in 1999, President Clinton presented her with the nation's highest civilian honor, a Congressional Gold Medal. "We must never ever, when this ceremony is over, forget about the power of ordinary people to stand in the fire for the cause of human dignity," Clinton said.

Parks died Oct. 24, 2005, in her Detroit home of natural causes. Her attorney said close friends were by her side.

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