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August 26, 2013

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of posts commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington by highlighting the women who were leaders in the Civil Rights movement but were only invited to have minimal roles in the March.

“I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free… so other people would be also free.” -Rosa Parks

We all know the story of Rosa Parks. She was the sweet, older seamstress who refused to give up her seat on a bus, an action that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and kickstarted the Civil Rights Movement. She was just so tired, and in that moment she decided that enough was enough, right?

Despite what McDonald’s Black History Month fact makers and most third grade social studies teachers would have you believe, that’s not the actual story. While Ms. Parks was indeed a seamstress, she was, at her core, an activist. Though she is often portrayed in a limited role, understanding the importance of Rosa Parks requires placing her unwillingness to move as just one moment within the greater context of her dedication to change and societal advancement.

Rosa Parks (née Louise McCauley) was born in the winter of 1913 on February 4th in Tuskeegee, Alabama. After her parents separated she moved with her mother to her grandparents’ home in Pine Level, Alabama and was subject to the segregated reality of the South throughout her youth. As a young girl attending primary school she was forced to walk to the school for black students because the county did not provide buses for her as they did for her white contemporaries.

Her grandparents, Rose and Sylvester Edwards, were former slaves and fierce proponents of racial equality, instilling the same passion in their young granddaughter. Supposedly Ms. Parks would sit outside with her grandfather occasionally as he sat on his porch, armed and ready to defend his family against members of the Ku Klux Klan.

After leaving the Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes in 1929 while in the eleventh grade to take care of her ailing mother and grandmother, Ms. Parks decided to forgo the rest of her formal education and began working in a shirt factory in Montgomery. In 1932 she married Raymond Parks, a man who, in addition to being a barber, was very active in the NAACP and involved in activism around the case of the Scottsboro Boys. With his help, Rosa finished high school and became active in the NAACP chapter in Montgomery as well.

Ms. Parks rose in the ranks of the NAACP and became the Montgomery chapter’s youth leader as well as the secretary to the chapter’s president, Mr. Ed Dixon, in 1943. It was while holding this position that on December 1, 1955 Ms. Parks was charged with violating Chapter 6, Section 11 of the Montgomery City Code for refusing to relinquish her seat on the Cleveland Avenue bus to a white man.

What is often not highlighted, however, is that during her time as an advisor to the NAACP youth a few year earlier she helped to organize young people in the community borrowing library books from libraries for whites only. Also left out of the narrative is her time at the Highlander Folk School, a center for leftist activism and hub for organizing, just a few months before her arrest. It was there that Parks attended the workshop entitled “Racial Desegregation: Implementing the Supreme Court Decision.”

After she was found guilty of violating the city’s code and charged $10 for her disobedience (plus a $4 court fee), Ms. Parks remained active in the bus boycott that enveloped Montgomery in the wake of her arrest. She served as a dispatcher for the boycott and was indicted with Dr. King and others for her defiance. She also traveled around the country seeking funds for the Montgomery Improvement Agency.

After moving to Detroit, Michigan due to harassment and a lack of employment opportunities, she endorsed John Conyers for Congress in her new home and joined his staff following his election to the U.S. House in 1964. She remained with him until his retirement and in 1987 she created the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Improvement. Though she passed away in 2005 at age 92, she remained involved in civil rights until the end of her life, and left her institute as a lasting way of improving the lives of others.

As Ms. Parks stated in her autobiography, ‘‘I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in’’.

The traditional understanding of Rosa Parks deserves to be challenged in favor of full regard for the scope of her civil rights work. Though her most famous act of defiance was certainly pivotal to the movement, to only acknowledge her agency in that one moment understates her lifelong activism and belittles the breadth and longevity of her service to the cause of social justice.

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