News Column

US Observes Rosa Parks Centenary

Jan. 31, 2013

Marco Mierke, dpa

Rosa Parks is often called the "mother of the civil rights movement" for her act of resistance against racial segregation that initiated a new era in the US quest for freedom and equality.

Monday marks the 100th anniversary of Parks' birth in the town of Tuskegee, Alabama, the segregated Southern US state where blacks were regularly and unjustly imprisoned, assaulted and even lynched by white mobs organized by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups.

Parks became active in the civil rights movement in Alabama's capital, Montgomery, where she lived in that climate and worked as a seamstress. There on December 1, 1955, the 42-year-old African American boarded a municipal bus to go home from work and sat near the middle of the bus, just behind the 10 seats reserved for whites.

When she was asked by the bus driver to give up her seat to a white man because the white section was full, Parks refused.

An active member of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Parks was subsequently arrested and convicted of violating the laws of segregation, resulting in a 10-dollar fine, plus an additional 4 dollars in court costs.

She appealed, thus formally challenging the legality of segregation while the African American community in Montgomery, led by the previously unknown Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, engaged in a citywide boycott of the municipal bus system that lasted more than a year.

In 1956, in a related case, the US Supreme Court affirmed that segregating Montgomery buses was unconstitutional. After 382 days of protests, African Americans once again boarded public transport in Montgomery and were free to sit anywhere they liked.

Parks died in 2005 at 92, but her birthday is celebrated across America. The US Postal Service has issued a commemorative stamp to mark the centenary of her birth, using a portrait that it said emphasizes her "quiet strength."

It was also announced this month during President Barack Obama's inaugural luncheon that a statue of Parks would be added to the National Statuary Hall before the end of the year, making Parks the first African American woman to have her likeness included in the hall in the US Capitol.

Obama last year visited the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, where the bus in which Parks made her stand is now on display. The first African American US president sat in the same green leather seat as Parks did nearly six decades ago.

"I just sat in there for a moment and pondered the courage and tenacity that is part of our very recent history but is also part of that long line of folks who sometimes are nameless, oftentimes didn't make the history books, but who constantly insisted on their dignity, their share of the American dream," the president said.

Parks' passive resistance helped ignite the movement for civil rights that eventually led Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Parks bore no children with her barber husband of 45 years, Raymond, who died in 1977.

President Bill Clinton presented Parks with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996 while in 1997, she received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award given by the US legislature.

Historians argue to this day whether Parks' act was spontaneous as she always claimed or if the NAACP deliberately selected her.

Parks was elected secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in 1943 and together with her husband participated in the campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys, a group of African American youths falsely accused of raping two white women.

Parks received threats after her refusal to move on the bus and was also unable to obtain work while her husband suffered a nervous breakdown. The couple moved to Detroit, where she again found work as a seamstress. Member of Congress and civil rights activist John Conyers offered Parks a job in his office in 1965. She accepted and remained until retiring in 1988. Although famous, Parks needed the financial support of her local church in later years and also suffered from dementia.

After Parks died on October 24, 2005, her body lay in state in the rotunda of the US Capitol, making her the first African American to receive this honour.

President George W Bush was among the 50,000 people who viewed the casket while the Stars and Stripes flew at half-staff, even in Montgomery.

Source: Copyright 2013 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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