A Pioneer of Civil Rights: Who Is Rosa Parks?

Rosa Parks was a pioneering Black African American who stood up against segregation in 1950s America, sparking the civil rights movement.

Feb 6, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

who is rosa parks american civil rights activist


Rosa Parks was a pioneering American civil rights activist who bravely stood up against segregation laws, earning her the moniker as the “mother of the civil rights movement.” Parks famously refused to give her bus seat to a white man during a journey in her home town of Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. This seemingly small act of defiance became the catalyst for the Montgomery bus boycott, and later the entire civil rights movement across the US. While Parks faced criminal charges and public ridicule in the 1950s, years later she became a national symbol of strength and dignity in the long struggle to end racial prejudice across the US and beyond. We look through a series of facts about the life of this remarkable woman.


Rosa Parks Was Born in Tuskegee, Alabama

rosa parks portrait civil rights
Portrait of Rosa Parks.


Rosa Parks was born in Tuskegee in 1913 as Rosa Louise McCauley. Her father was a stonemason and carpenter, and her mother was a teacher. Her parents separated when she was just two years old, and her mother moved Rosa and her younger brother to live on their maternal grandmother’s farm in Pine Level, Alabama, near Montgomery. As a young child Rosa’s mother home schooled her, and taught her cooking, sewing and farming skills.


There was constant fear surrounding the Ku Klux Klan throughout her childhood, and she remembered hiding behind boarded shut doors and windows at night. Some nights she and her brother had to sleep in their clothes, just in case they had to make an emergency escape in the middle of the night.


She Faced Segregation from a Young Age

rosa parks young portrait
Rosa Parks as a young woman.


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As well as facing the fears of overt racism, Rosa Parks grew up with the segregation of Jim Crow laws throughout her adolescence. Schools for Black children were separate, as were many public facilities including buses, libraries, restaurants, and drinking fountains. Rosa attended a designated Black high school in Montgomery, followed by Black teacher’s college.


In 1932, Rosa Married Raymond Parks

civil rights demonstration us 1950s
Rosa Parks during a civil rights demonstration.


In 1932, at the age of 19, Rosa married Raymond Parks, a barber and long-standing member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Meanwhile she found work as a seamstress in Montgomery. Both Rosa and her husband became respected, active members of Montgomery’s large African American community. 


She Became Chapter Secretary for the NAACP


Rosa Parks joined the NAACP in 1943, and became the group’s chapter secretary until 1956. There she worked closely alongside chapter president Edgar Daniel E.D. Nixon, a strong advocate for Black people who wanted to vote.


The Famous Bus Incident

rosa parks bus ride Montgomery 1950s
Rosa Parks riding the bus in Montgomery in the 1950s.


On the 1st of December 1955, Parks was riding home on a crowded municipal bus after a long day at work. In these segregated buses, Black people sat at the back, and white people at the front, each with their own designated area. On this particular day, the white section of the bus was full, so the driver asked the four Black passengers in the front four seats of their section to stand up, to make more room for white people. Three of them stood up, but Parks refused.


As a result, police arrested Parks for violating segregation laws, and handed her a suspended sentence and fine. She later wrote in her biography, “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but it isn’t true. I was not tired physically… No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”


The Montgomery Bus Boycotts

rosa parks arrested 1950s
Rosa Parks after being arrested in the 1950s.


In the ensuing months Parks became a powerful mascot in the fight against racial segregation. The Black population of Montgomery banded together to form the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), with the 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. as president. Together they staged a 13-month long series of boycotts and protests against bus segregation, attracting worldwide media attention. Finally, in 1956, the US Supreme Court ruled bus segregation unconstitutional. But this was just the beginning of the civil rights movement that swept across the United States.


Rosa Parks: After the Court Case

rosa parks later years
Rosa Parks in her later years.


During and after her court hearing, Parks faced public bullying and harassment, and even lost her job. Eventually she moved with her family to Detroit, where she became an administrative aide in the Detroit Office of Congressman John Conyers Jr. in 1965, and remained here until her retirement.


Later Years


Throughout her later years, Rosa Parks continued to fight the case for human rights. In 1987, she co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, for improving the lives of young Black African Americans. The extent of her philanthropic work is outlined in her biography, Rosa Parks: My Story, published in 1992. In 1999, the United States Congress awarded Parks a Congressional Gold Medal. Following her death in 2005 aged 92, Americans further honored her place in history, laying Parks to rest at the US Capitol.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.