Civil Rights Pioneer Rosa Parks, 92, Dies
By BREE FOWLER, Associated Press Writer
Tue Oct 25,12:24 PM ET
DETROIT - Nearly 50 years ago, Rosa Parks made a simple decision that sparked a revolution. When a white man demanded she give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, the then 42-year-old seamstress said no.
At the time, she couldn't have known it would secure her a revered place in American history. But her one small act of defiance galvanized a generation of activists, including a young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and earned her the title "mother of the civil rights movement."
Mrs. Parks died Monday evening at her home of natural causes, with close friends by her side, said Gregory Reed, an attorney who represented her for the past 15 years. She was 92.
Monique Reynolds, 37, a native of Montgomery, Ala., called Mrs. Parks an inspiration who had lived to see the changes brought about by the civil rights movement.
"Martin Luther King never saw this, Malcolm X never saw this," said Reynolds, who now lives in Detroit. "She was able to see this and enjoy it."
In 1955, Jim Crow laws in place since the post-Civil War Reconstruction required separation of the races in buses, restaurants and public accommodations throughout the South, while legally sanctioned racial discrimination kept blacks out of many jobs and neighborhoods in the North.
Mrs. Parks, an active member of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was riding on a city bus Dec. 1, 1955, when a white man demanded her seat.
She refused, despite rules requiring blacks to yield their seats to whites. Two black Montgomery women had been arrested earlier that year on the same charge, but Mrs. Parks was jailed. She also was fined $14.
U.S. Rep John Conyers, in whose office Mrs. Parks worked for more than 20 years, remembered the civil rights leader as someone whose impact on the world was immeasurable, but who never sought the limelight.
"Everybody wanted to explain Rosa Parks and wanted to teach Rosa Parks, but Rosa Parks wasn't very interested in that," he said. "She wanted them to understand the government and to understand their rights and the Constitution that people are still trying to perfect today."
Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said he felt a personal tie to the civil rights icon: "She stood up by sitting down. I'm only standing here because of her."
Speaking to an audience of military spouses at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, President Bush said Mrs. Parks' 1955 refusal to give up her seat "was an act of personal courage."
Bush described her as "one of the most inspiring women of the 20th century" and said that she would always have a "special place" in American history.
Speaking in 1992, Mrs. Parks said history too often maintains "that my feet were hurting and I didn't know why I refused to stand up when they told me. But the real reason of my not standing up was I felt that I had a right to be treated as any other passenger. We had endured that kind of treatment for too long."
Her arrest triggered a 381-day boycott of the bus system organized by a then little-known Baptist minister, the Rev. King, who later earned the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.
"At the time I was arrested I had no idea it would turn into this," she said 30 years later. "It was just a day like any other day. The only thing that made it significant was that the masses of the people joined in."
The Montgomery bus boycott, which came one year after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark declaration that separate schools for blacks and whites were "inherently unequal," marked the start of the modern civil rights movement.
The movement culminated in the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act, which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations.
After taking her public stand for civil rights, Mrs. Parks had trouble finding work in Alabama. Amid threats and harassment, she and her husband, Raymond, moved to Detroit in 1957. She worked as an aide in Conyers' Detroit office from 1965 until retiring Sept. 30, 1988. Raymond Parks died in 1977.
Mrs. Parks said upon retiring from her job with Conyers that she wanted to devote more time to the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development. The institute, incorporated in 1987, is devoted to developing leadership among Detroit's young people and initiating them into the struggle for civil rights.
"Rosa Parks: My Story," was published in February 1992. In 1994 she brought out "Quiet Strength: The Faith, the Hope and the Heart of a Woman Who Changed a Nation," and in 1996 a collection of letters called "Dear Mrs. Parks: A Dialogue With Today's Youth."
She was among the civil rights leaders who addressed the Million Man March in October 1995.
In 1996, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to civilians making outstanding contributions to American life. In 1999, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor.
Mrs. Parks received dozens of other awards, ranging from induction into the Alabama Academy of Honor to an NAACP Image Award for her 1999 appearance on CBS' "Touched by an Angel."
She was born Rosa Louise McCauley on Feb. 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Ala. Family illness interrupted her high school education, but after she married Raymond Parks in 1932, he encouraged her and she earned a diploma in 1934. He also inspired her to become involved in the NAACP.
Mrs. Parks was a beloved aunt to 13 nieces and nephews.
"She wasn't the mother of the civil rights movement to me," Susan McCauley, one of her nieces, said last year. "She was the woman I wanted to become."
Her later years were not without difficult moments. In 1994, her home was invaded by a 28-year-old man who beat her and took $53. She was treated at a hospital and released. The man, Joseph Skipper, pleaded guilty, blaming the crime on his drug problem.
Mrs. Parks rarely was seen in public after 2001, when she canceled a meeting with President Bush. In court papers filed in September 2004 in connection with her lawsuit over the rap group OutKast's song "Rosa Parks," her lawyers said she had dementia.
After losing the OutKast lawsuit, Reed, her attorney, said Mrs. Parks "has once again suffered the pains of exploitation." A later suit against OutKast's record company was settled out of court.
In 2002, her landlord threatened to evict her from her high-rise apartment in downtown Detroit after her caregivers missed rental payments. Riverfront Associates decided in October 2004 to let her live there rent-free permanently.
Looking back in 1988, Mrs. Parks said she worried that black young people took legal equality for granted.
Older blacks, she said "have tried to shield young people from what we have suffered. And in so doing, we seem to have a more complacent attitude.
"We must double and redouble our efforts to try to say to our youth, to try to give them an inspiration, an incentive and the will to study our heritage and to know what it means to be black in America today."
At a celebration in her honor that same year, she said: "I am leaving this legacy to all of you ... to bring peace, justice, equality, love and a fulfillment of what our lives should be. Without vision, the people will perish, and without courage and inspiration, dreams will die — the dream of freedom and peace."
Associated Press Writer JoAnne Viviano contributed to this report from Detroit.