On what seemed like just another day in 1955, a Black woman boarded and rode a bus through Montgomery, Alabama. When a white man boarded that same bus, the driver targeted this seemingly quiet woman and ordered her to give up her seat. The woman, however, was not quiet, nor was she about to let injustice continue to slide. That was the day Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Little did she know how this action would reverberate through time, inspiring the events that would catapult the Civil Rights Movement into the forefront of society.
Rosa Parks was so much more than the events that occurred on that bus, on that day. As Jeanne Theoharis writes in a story for the Washington Post, history got her story wrong.
Theoharis describes Parks as “a woman who, from her youth, didn’t hesitate to indict the system of oppression around her.”
Growing up in the segregated south, Rosa Parks knew the power of talking back from a young age. The Library of Congress shares documents from Parks’ childhood where she writes about an encounter with a white boy who had threatened to hit her: “I would rather be lynched than live to be mistreated and can’t say ‘I don’t like it’.”
Rosa Parks also knew the toll talking back took. Being a rebel came with costs: loneliness, fear, danger. In her autobiography, as Theoharis highlights, Parks wrote that surviving as a Black person in the United States “took a ‘major mental acrobatic feat.’”
She continues, it was far from easy for Parks “‘to remain rational and normal mentally in such a setting,’ [and] she refused to normalize the ability to function under American racism.”
Parks never stopped speaking up or fighting injustice. Her actions ignited the Montgomery bus boycott and its success, and, as described by Britannica.com, catapulted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into the spotlight. Dr. King recognized Rosa as a key player in the civil rights movement.
Her continued efforts for justice, while having a historic impact, left Rosa continually struggling in life.
After her arrest in 1955, she was shunned by her coworkers and eventually fired from her job as a seamstress. Parks’ niece Urana McCauley describes her aunt’s struggle,“‘if you were doing anything for change you were an outcast. Jim Crow conditioned black folk to think this was the best life they were going to get.’”
McCauley continues, “‘She struggled for a good 10 years after that arrest.’”
With hate mail and death threats regularly making their way to Parks’ front door, she still continued to fight. For the remainder of her life, Parks was an active member of the NAACP and a spokesperson for women’s rights in the criminal justice system.
Rosa Parks passed away in 2005 after a life full of meaning, empowerment, turmoil, and change. Her life as a Freedom Fighter was not an easy one: the road was long and uncertain, but Rosa Parks persevered. Her legacy lives on to this day as the struggle for social justice continues.
Theoharis ends the Washington Post article writing, “today’s rebels could be tomorrow’s heroes.” We would argue that yesterday’s rebels are today’s heroes, and Rosa Parks’ legacy bears that proof.