Life On The Job

Famous or Historic People

Rosa Parks (4 February 1913 - 24 October 2005) Dressmaker [Seamstress] & Human Rights Activist

 Rosa Parks 1950
Circa 1950

Her Story

"Most historians date the beginning of the modern civil rights movement in the United States to December 1, 1955. That was the day when an unknown seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. This brave woman, Rosa Parks, was arrested and fined for violating a city ordinance, but her lonely act of defiance began a movement that ended legal segregation in America, and made her an inspiration to freedom-loving people everywhere.

Rosa Parks was born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama to James McCauley, a carpenter, and Leona McCauley, a teacher. At the age of two she moved to her grandparents' farm in Pine Level, Alabama with her mother and younger brother, Sylvester. At the age of 11 she enrolled in the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, a private school founded by liberal-minded women from the northern United States. The school's philosophy of self-worth was consistent with Leona McCauley's advice to "take advantage of the opportunities, no matter how few they were."

Opportunities were few indeed. "Back then," Mrs. Parks recalled in an interview, "we didn't have any civil rights. It was just a matter of survival, of existing from one day to the next. 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." 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."

The Conversation
The Conversation 1 December 2015

Did You Know?

On December 1, 1955, during a typical evening rush hour in Montgomery, Alabama, a 42-year-old woman took a seat on the bus on her way home from the Montgomery Fair department store where she worked as a seamstress. Before she reached her destination, she quietly set off a social revolution when the bus driver instructed her to move back, and she refused. Rosa Parks, an African American, was arrested that day for violating a city law requiring racial segregation of public buses.

On the city buses of Montgomery, Alabama, the front 10 seats were permanently reserved for white passengers. The diagram shows that Mrs. Parks was seated in the first row behind those 10 seats. When the bus became crowded, the bus driver instructed Mrs. Parks and the other three passengers seated in that row, all African Americans, to vacate their seats for the white passengers boarding. Eventually, three of the passengers moved, while Mrs. Parks remained seated, arguing that she was not in a seat reserved for whites. Joseph Blake, the driver, believed he had the discretion to move the line separating black and white passengers. The law was actually somewhat murky on that point, but when Mrs. Parks defied his order, he called the police. Officers Day and Mixon came and promptly arrested her.

In police custody, Mrs. Parks was booked, fingerprinted, and briefly incarcerated. The police report shows that she was charged with "refusing to obey orders of bus driver."

Rosa Parks mug shot

For openly challenging the racial laws of her city, she remained at great physical risk while held by the police, and her family was terrified for her. When she called home, she spoke to her mother, whose first question was "Did they beat you?"

Getting fingerprinted
Getting fingerprinted

Mrs. Parks was not the first person to be prosecuted for violating the segregation laws on the city buses in Montgomery. She was, however, a woman of unchallenged character who was held in high esteem by all those who knew her. At the time of her arrest, Mrs. Parks was active in the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), serving as secretary to E.D. Nixon, president of the Montgomery chapter. Her arrest became a rallying point around which the African American community organized a bus boycott in protest of the discrimination they had endured for years. Martin Luther King, Jr., the 26-year-old minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, emerged as a leader during the well-coordinated, peaceful boycott that lasted 381 days and captured the world's attention. It was during the boycott that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., first achieved national fame as the public became acquainted with his powerful oratory.

After Mrs. Parks was convicted under city law, her lawyer filed a notice of appeal. While her appeal was tied up in the state court of appeals, a panel of three judges in the U.S. District Court for the region ruled in another case that racial segregation of public buses was unconstitutional. That case, called Browder v. Gayle, was decided on June 4, 1956. The ruling was made by a three-judge panel that included Frank M. Johnson, Jr., and upheld by the United States Supreme court on November 13, 1956.

For a quiet act of defiance that resonated throughout the world, Rosa Parks is known and revered as the "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement."
(Source: US Government Archives)

After attending Alabama State Teachers College, the young Rosa settled in Montgomery, with her husband, Raymond Parks. The couple joined the local chapter of the National Association of the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and worked quietly for many years to improve the lot of African-Americans in the segregated south.

"I worked on numerous cases with the NAACP," Mrs. Parks recalled, "but we did not get the publicity. There were cases of flogging, peonage, murder, and rape. We didn't seem to have too many successes. It was more a matter of trying to challenge the powers that be, and to let it be known that we did not wish to continue being second-class citizens."

The bus incident led to the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association, led by the young pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The association called for a boycott of the city-owned bus company. The boycott lasted 382 days and brought Mrs. Parks, Dr. King, and their cause to the attention of the world. A Supreme Court Decision struck down the Montgomery ordinance under which Mrs. Parks had been fined, and outlawed racial segregation on public transportation.

Rosa Parks with Dr Martin Luther King
Rosa Parks with Dr Martin Luther King Jr

In 1957, Mrs. Parks and her husband moved to Detroit, Michigan where Mrs. Parks served on the staff of U.S. Representative John Conyers. The Southern Christian Leadership Council established an annual Rosa Parks Freedom Award in her honor.

After the death of her husband in 1977, Mrs. 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. President Clinton presented Rosa Parks with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996. She received a Congressional Gold Medal in 1999.

Mrs. Parks spent her last years living quietly in Detroit, where she died in 2005 at the age of 92.

Rosa Parks Lying in State

 After her death, her casket was placed in the rotunda of the United States Capitol for two days, so the nation could pay its respects to the woman whose courage had changed the lives of so many. She is the only woman and second African American in American history to lie in state at the Capitol, an honor usually reserved for Presidents of the United States." (Source: Academy of Achievement)



bullet.gif (981 bytes) Scholastic: Culture & Change: Black History in America. Rosa Parks: How I Fought for Civil Rights

How I fought for civil rights
bullet.gif (981 bytes)Bio. Rosa Parks: Biography

bullet.gif (981 bytes)The Henry Ford: Rosa Parks Bus: The Story Behind the Bus

The Henry Ford
bullet.gif (981 bytes)History: Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks History
bullet.gif (981 bytes)Detroit Free Press


bullet.gif (981 bytes)Academy of Achievement: Rosa Parks

Academy of Achievement
bullet.gif (981 bytes)Awesome Stories: Rosa Parks

Awesome Stories
The Conversation Articles
bullet.gif (981 bytes)The Conversation 4 September 2020

The Conversation
bullet.gif (981 bytes)The Conversation 31 August 2019

The Conversation
bullet.gif (981 bytes)bullet.gif (981 bytes)The Conversation 29 November 2016

The Conversation
bullet.gif (981 bytes)The Conversation 1 December 2015

The Conversation


YouTube: Rosa Parks Story [Cartoon]


bullet.gif (981 bytes)YouTube: Rosa Parks - Mini Bio






bullet.gif (981 bytes)A Seat on the Bus: Reversing Musical Chairs


CriticalAustralian Curriculum General Capability: Critical and creative thinking
Personal and social capability
Australian Curriculum General Capability: Personal and social capability

TeacherTeacher Instructions [Source: Understanding Prejudice]

Begin with a classic game of "Musical Chairs":

1.Place chairs in a circle with one fewer chair than there are students.

2.Play music and have the children walk around the chairs.

3.Tell students that when the music stops, they should quickly find a seat.

Musical Chairs
Source: Play or die

Once they have done this and one person has nowhere to sit, challenge the group to find a way for everyone to have a seat.

Children can sit on each other's laps, stand on the rungs connecting chair legs, or squeeze next to someone else on the same seat.

Continue with a few successive rounds in which an additional chair is removed each time. Every time the group accommodates someone who would normally be excluded in a traditional game of Musical Chairs, compliment the students on their creativity.

With each new round, the students will have more contact with each other and will be challenged to work even harder to find ways to be inclusive.

You may also wish to connect this activity with historical information about Rosa Parks and the importance, literally and figuratively, of everyone having "a seat on the bus."

bullet.gif (981 bytes)Skin deep: should Australia consider name-blind resumes?

 MiddleMiddle  High SchoolSecondary

Ethical Understanding Australian Curriculum General Capability: Ethical Understanding

Intercultural UnderstandingAustralian Curriculum General Capability: Intercultural Understanding

Literacy Australian Curriculum General Capability: Literacy

1. List the actual names of the students in your class - the official names. Are there any names that have been anglicised (made more English sounding)? Why?

2.  Read the following article from The Conversation - 9th March 2016

The Conversation

3.  Look at the author of this article and his interview on The Project in March 2016. (NB Low sound)

4. Discuss, in pairs,  the sorts of discrimination that is still occurring in the community that this interview brought up.

5. "At the time I was arrested I had no idea it would turn into this [Civil Rights Movement and the Boycott of the Montgomery Buses by African-Americans]. 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." Rosa Parks

As a pair, then a group, then a class, work out what you can do to stop discrimination in your school or community.

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