The Role Of Rosa Parks In The American Civil Rights Movement

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The scope of this report will venture into the background of Parks and relevant figures around her where necessary, as well as the way Parks’ efforts impacted the movement for racial equality in America. There will also be a focus on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, including Parks’ role as well as crucial facts and figures surrounding the ordeal. This report will also discuss the controversies and misconceptions surrounding Rosa Parks and her actions, such as her authenticity and intentions of her ‘initial’ act of justice in her ‘bus incident’ as well as common misconceptions about her life mission. Her impact is compared to the impact other significant figures in the American civil rights movement such as Claudette Colvin and Dr Martin Luther King Jr, for example, by also briefly examining their influence. Through this, her true impact, not just the impact that the media may portray, is evaluated and presented within the essay.

Rosa Parks, born February 4th 1913 and died October 24th 2005, was a seamstress and person of colour living in Montgomery, Alabama, USA. She, unlike most coloured people at the time, completed her highschool education, giving her an upper-hand in defending herself and being more aware of the world she lived in with a more knowledgeable perspective. For the first half of her life, the communities of Montgomery, Alabama was quite a rough and unwelcoming environment for African-American people through the implementation of the Jim Crow laws. These laws were state and local laws that enforced the racial segregation of white and black individuals in the Southern United States, alienating them from the rest of society and creating an atmosphere of disrespect and unjust treatment towards African Americans. Both of Parks’ grandparents were former slaves, an experience that led to them gaining strong sense of racial equality and need for social justice, this attitude easily being taught to Parks herself. She, along with her husband Raymond Parks, was closely involved in The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for a majority of their life, joining in 1943. Although, her ambitions weren’t covered in international mass media until the 1st of December 1955, when she defied segregation laws and arguably kick-started the American civil rights movement. On this day, Parks, aged 42 at the time, was returning home from work when she sat in the first row in the black end of the bus as to follow the law. Although, when the Whites Only section of the bus filled, Parks was asked to move from her seat in order to let a white person sit down, she denied the bus driver and was arrested on the spot. She was jailed for 2.5 hours and convicted for violating Alabama’s segregation laws. This entire controversy would later cause the loss of her job as a seamstress but would only strengthen her position as a civil rights activist.

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Beginning only 4 days after on December 5th 1955, Dr Martin Luther King and other individuals launched the ever-famous Montgomery bus boycott in protest of the Rosa Parks bus incident. This bus boycott meant African American citizens refused to ride city buses in Montgomery, congregating approximately 400,000 people, which was 75% of people who had used city buses at the time. On this day, black leaders met to form the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), appointing 26 year old Dr. Luther King as president of this movement and declared to continue with this initiative until the city meets their demands. Exactly that happened on June 5th, 1956 when a Montgomery Federal Court ruled that any law the enforced racial segregation on buses violated the 14th Ammendment to the U.S. Constitution which states “…No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” (section 1). This lead to integration on all Montgomery city buses on December 21st, 1956, 381 days after the initial Rosa Parks incident. This new enforcement resulted in violence and resistance to the law, even including snipers firing into buses in aim of African Americans. This bus violence was put to an end after the arrest of seven Ku Klux Klan members on January 30th 1957 after 4 black churches and homes were bombed. The Montgomery bus boycott was a significant event as it acted as a catalyst for the rest of the American civil rights movement, this being one of the first steps. It is regarded as the first mass protest of American civil rights, sparking the fire for further large-scale action in the fight for fair treatment of people of colour.

In order to evaluate Rosa Parks’ impact, it is important that her actions and motives are properly understood. There is thought to be two versions of the story regarding her bus incident, referred to as the “Standard Rosa Parks Story” and the “Revised Standard Rosa Parks Story”, the revised version being the one in which all common misconceptions and mistakes have been corrected. The first misconception would be that Parks sat at the front of the bus, when she in fact did not, that would be purposefully seeking trouble. She had sat in the first row of the Blacks section in order to avoid provoking authority, and her defiance towards them was not premeditated. Contrary to popular belief, Parks was a dedicated civil rights activist, a member of the NAACP for 12 years at the time, making her actions quite the opposite of random, spontaneous, or unusual. Herbert Kohl, progressive educator, author, and social activist had once said “To call Rosa Parks a poor, tired seamstress and not talk about her role as a community leader as well is to turn an organised struggle for freedom into a personal act of frustration. It is a thorough misrepresentation of the civil rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama and an insult to Mrs. Parks as well”. On this matter Rosa Parks herself said in her memoir “Quiet Strength” (1995), “No, the only thing I was, was tired of giving in”. Additionally, there were many personalities of Rosa Parks depicted in the various stories, articles, news headlines, and media. Some would display Parks with a strong sense of passion and justice for her race, a role model to spark inspiration. Others portray her as charitable, simply seeing a need and doing something about it with no real emotional connection or intention. Some stories prefer to only speak the facts, rather than delving into the emotional and personal side of Park’s actions, sometimes even portraying a radicle, rebellious person. An example of this information includes this extract from an essay by American author Robert Fulghum who said “Rosa Parks. Not an activist or a radicle. Just a quiet, conservative churchgoing woman with a nice family and a decent job as a seamstress”. This is just one of the many false perceptions of the story of Rosa Parks. Activists would also further twist the story in their favour through emphasising the spontaneous nature of their actions as evidence that their protests were independent and divided from outside forces. This is because it was vital for activists to appear moderate, non-threatening to avoid falling victim to terrorist rage, violence, or even murder. To understand the story of its full truth is crucial in order to properly and fairly evaluate Park’s impact in the American civil rights movement.

Rosa Parks has been critiqued on her involvement and credible impact on the American civil rights movement since it’s very beginning. Some say her fame is undeserved due to the fact that she was not the first person of colour to defy racial bus segregation. An earlier protest was Claudette Colvin, who stood up for her race at age 15 on March 2nd 1955 on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This story was ignored by the masses for years, so when Rosa Parks did the exact same thing, people questioned why it was her story that was spoken about rather than Colvin’s. Although, Parks herself had never claimed the title of being the first person to protest bus segregation, it was in fact the media that gave her this name, and it is now the media who is also criticizing her for it. Parks had mentioned that her inspiration was in fact drawn from Jackie Robinson, who had also protested racial bus segregation in Texas, this clearly indicating that she was aware that she wasn’t the first. Critics may point out that her act was illegal rather than pushing for justice, that she was in the wrong, and that her acts should not be considered heroic and inspirational. Although, the only way to change such laws would be to present the fact that they are unjust, which was exactly what Parks was attempting to do. Some may ask why Parks is called ‘the mother of the civil rights movement’ and not Colvin when they had both set forth similar protests. The only difference is that Parks had already had more exposure due to being so heavily involved in the NAACP, thus her story had caught on with other racial activists more efficiently than Colvin’s story. The point is not that Colvin’s act had coincidentally occurred first, the point is that Parks’ incident had actually led to a movement. This movement being a 381 day bus boycott of 400,000 people that led to the enforcement of racial integration on buses, achieving the one thing they had both strived for. This catalysed the rest of the American civil rights movement, awakening the country to their problem of racial inequality, inspiring others to act as well. Therefore, Rosa Parks’ involvement and impact in the American civil rights movement was one unmatched by anyone else, and she is deserving of all the credit she has received.

In conclusion, this historical essay has evaluated the impact of Rosa Parks’ actions on the American civil rights movement. Rosa Parks’ protest against racial bus segregation in December of 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama by refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger triggered a 381 day bus boycott of 400,000 people of colour. This would result in a ruling of bus racial integration in accordance to the 14th amendment of the U.S. Commendment, achieving the goal that many others had failed to succeed in. The Montgomery bus boycott is recognised as the starting point for the American civil rights movement, Rosa Parks along with Dr. Martin Luther King and the NAACP and MIA in lead. Critics question Parks’ impact and authenticity as she was not the first to defy racial segregation on buses and that her acts were technically illegal. Although, it was these acts that pushed the American civil rights movement into action and triggered a new mindset of racial equality for many Americans, thus the credit and popularity she has received is well deserved. Evidently, Rosa Parks’ impact on the American civil rights movement is one of great courage and strength, proving herself as one of the most influential personalities of the entire ordeal and should be recognised as so.  


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