Civil Rights Pioneer Rosa Parks Dead at Age 92

ByABC News

Oct. 24, 2005 — -- Civil-rights pioneer Rosa Parks died today at age 92.

Called "the mother of the civil rights movement," Parks' refusal to give up a seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white person in the segregated South is thought to be the beginning of the public fight for equal rights.

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.

Parks was arrested and fined for violating a city ordinance, but her act of defiance began a movement that ended legal segregation in America, and made her an inspiration to millions. A massive bus boycott that lasted a little over a year put the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a then-unknown 26-year-old, into the national spotlight for the first time.

Rosa Parks was born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Ala., to James McCauley, a carpenter, and Leona McCauley, a teacher, on Feb. 4, 1913. At the age of 2, she moved to her grandparents' farm in Pine Level, Ala., with her mother and younger brother, Sylvester. Parks' father, James, headed North and was rarely heard from.

"My mother taught me self-respect," Parks later recalled. "There's no law that says people have to suffer."

She was educated at home by her mother, a school teacher, until the age of 11, when her family moved back to Montgomery and Parks enrolled in the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, an all-black private school. Parks performed janitorial work in exchange for tuition.

At 19, she met and married barber Raymond Parks. He was 10 years her senior and a passionate civil rights activist. In her first autobiography, "Rosa Parks: My Story," she recalled what had impressed her the most about Raymond: "He didn't seem to have that meek attitude -- what we called an 'Uncle Tom' attitude -- toward white people." Articulate and bold, though with little formal education, it was he who encouraged her to complete her high school education at age 21.

Contrary to the public conception of a quiet, domestic woman who was just too tired from a hard day's work to get up from her seat, Parks was actually a strong civil rights advocate who worked as the secretary in the Montgomery office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In his biography of Parks, Douglas Brinkley wrote, "While the NAACP executives made dinner speeches and attended national conferences, [Parks] balanced the ledgers, kept the books, and recorded every report of racial discrimination that crossed her desk. She also did field research, traveling from towns like Union Springs to cities like Selma to interview African Americans with legal complaints, including some who had witnessed the murders of blacks by whites in rural areas."

In "Quiet Strength: The Faith, the Hope, and the Heart of a Woman Who Changed a Nation," a later autobiography, Parks said she wanted to be known as "a person who is concerned about freedom and equality and justice and prosperity for all people."

In 1955, the year of the famous bus incident near the intersection of Montgomery and Moulton streets, Parks was 42 years old. She denies that she remained seated because she was tired. "The only tired I was, was tired of giving in," she said.

Like other blacks who rode the bus, Parks was forced to abide by the law that reserved the first 10 seats for whites and mandated that blacks give up their own seats if necessary to accommodate white passengers. Black riders also had to enter the bus by the back door; on one occasion in 1943, Parks was ejected from the bus for failing to do so.

On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks was sitting with three others at the front of the black section of a bus when a white man boarded. As there were no seats available in the white section, the driver told Parks and the others in her row to move. Initially, no one complied, but the other passengers vacated their seats when the driver insisted they not make trouble for themselves. Parks, however, remained seated even after the driver threatened to call the police to force her to move.

"Go ahead and call them," she told the driver and waited patiently until the police arrived.

They arrested Parks and took her to jail. As Parks explained in her autobiography, she did not intend to change history that December evening. "If I had been paying attention, I wouldn't even have gotten on the bus."

The photograph taken of Parks during her fingerprinting eventually found its way into history books. She was granted one telephone call, and she used it to contact E.D. Nixon, a prominent member of Montgomery's NAACP chapter. Nixon was properly outraged, but he also sensed that in Parks his community might have the perfect individual to serve as a symbol of racial injustice. Nixon called a liberal white lawyer, Clifford Durr, who agreed to represent Parks. After consulting with the attorney, her husband, and her mother, Parks agreed to undertake a court challenge of the segregationist law that had led to her arrest.

Word of her arrest quickly spread and leaflets urging a bus boycott followed. The 13-month boycott, which began Dec. 5 and was organized out of King's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, overwhelmed Montgomery. It eventually took the U.S. Supreme Court to end the boycott. On Nov. 13, 1956, the court declared that Alabama's state and local laws requiring segregation on buses were illegal. On Dec. 20, federal injunctions were served on the city and bus company officials forcing them to follow the ruling.

The following morning, Dec. 21, 1956, King and the Rev. Glen Smiley, a white minister, shared the front seat of a public bus. The boycott had lasted 381 days.

"My real reason (for not getting out of her seat) was that I didn't think that I should have to stand up on order of this bus driver and be deprived of my seat," Parks told Ebony magazine. "I figured that as long as we did take that kind of treatment, they, the white segregationists, were becoming even more overbearing and cruel in their way of treating us."

Parks attributed her rebellious spirit to her grandfather, Sylvester Edwards, who, she said, was hostile toward whites because of the cruel treatment he had received from them. "While I do not think that I inherited his hostility," she mused, "my mother and I both learned from him not to let anyone mistreat us. It was passed down almost in our genes."

"I remember going to sleep as a girl hearing the Klan ride at night and hearing a lynching and being afraid the house would burn down," Parks said. In the same interview, she cited her lifelong acquaintance with fear as the reason for her relative fearlessness in deciding to appeal her conviction during the bus boycott. "I didn't have any special fear," she said. "It was more of a relief to know that I wasn't alone."

In 1957, Parks and her husband moved to Detroit, where she served on the staff of Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. The Southern Christian Leadership Council established an annual Rosa Parks Freedom Award in her honor.

After the death of her husband, Parks founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development. The institute sponsors an annual summer program for teenagers called Pathways to Freedom. The young people tour the country in buses, under adult supervision, learning the history of their country and of the civil rights movement.

"I do the very best I can to look upon life with optimism and hope and looking forward to a better day, but I don't think there is anything such as complete happiness," she said in an interview. "It pains me that there is still a lot of Klan activity and racism. I think when you say you're happy, you have everything that you need and everything that you want, and nothing more to wish for. I haven't reached that stage yet."

Parks suffered from dementia since 2002. She was rarely seen in public after 2001 even though a very public lawsuit was filed in her name against the rap group OutKast over their song, "Rosa Parks."

An April 2005 settlement ended the 1999 lawsuit against OutKast. The amount of the settlement was not disclosed. Under the terms of the settlement, Parks was to receive money to be used for her care and to pay bills.

As part of the settlement, Sony BMG, OutKast, Arista Records, LaFace Records, and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute will become partners in developing educational programs for youths that emphasize the role Parks played "in making America a better place for all races," according to a statement from Archer's law office.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events