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60th Anniversary of Rosa Parks’ Courageous Act

December 1, 2015 Innovation Impact

Lapel pin of the new Rosa Parks stamp introduced at Henry Ford Museum’s Day of Courage—a daylong event on February 4, 2013, that commemorated Rosa Parks’ 100th birthday and honored both her achievements and her impact. THF162760

In a rare moment, one person’s simple act of courage can change the world. On the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, we pause to reflect on the impact and legacy of her courageous action.

Rosa’s awareness of social injustice started at an early age. As a girl growing up in Alabama, Rosa hated the disrespectful way that whites often treated black people. Her grandfather, a former slave, instilled a sense of pride and independence in her.

drinking-fountain

A pair of drinking fountains—an example of the widespread segregation laws and practices in the South. THF13419, THF13421

Her life took a radical turn when she married Raymond Parks, a self-educated activist who encouraged Rosa to work as a secretary at the local branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Here, her eyes were opened to the widespread discrimination faced by African Americans.

1953 NAACP brochure. THF8264

During the summer of 1955, Rosa had the opportunity to attend a civil rights training workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. There, she met Septima Clark, a black female activist from South Carolina. Rosa later recalled, “I only hope that there is a possible chance that some of Septima’s great courage and dignity and wisdom has rubbed off on me.”

The Rosa Parks Bus on display in the museum’s “With Liberty and Justice for All” exhibit. THF14922

Rosa Parks did not mean to inspire a social movement when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus, as dictated by Montgomery, Alabama segregation laws. Her action on that day, December 1, 1955, was spontaneous, not planned beforehand. And she knew she had taken a huge risk for herself and her family. But she had the conviction that, “When I made that decision, I knew that I had the strength of my ancestors with me.”

Rosa was neither the first African American nor the first woman to challenge the segregation laws within a public transportation system. But her flawless character, quiet strength, and moral fortitude caused her act to successfully ignite action in others. The African-American community knew that, this time, “they had messed with the wrong one.”

The cover of this April 1956 Liberation magazine highlights the Montgomery bus boycott on its cover and features an article by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. THF2150

The simple, courageous act of protest by Rosa Parks, and her subsequent arrest, led to an immediate city-wide bus boycott that lasted 381 days. A group named the Montgomery Improvement Association, composed of local activists and ministers, organized the boycott. They chose young Baptist minister Martin Luther King, Jr. as their leader.

Rosa Parks’ act gave African Americans everywhere a new sense of pride and purpose and inspired non-violent protests in other cities. Because of this, many consider her singular act of protest on the bus to be the event that sparked the Civil Rights movement. The arrest of Rosa Parks and the resulting bus boycott also led to the meteoric rise of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., as the widely recognized leader of this movement.

Political button advocating Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s tactic of nonviolence. THF8434

By the time she passed away in 2005, Rosa Parks had become an international symbol of the struggle for human rights and freedom.

Rosa Parks was not a civic, political, or religious leader. She was just an ordinary person. And she well knew the risks of her action. But, through her example, she showed others what was possible. Her uncommon courage shines through as an inspiration to us today.

Rosa Parks’ 1992 visit to Greenfield Village included a stop at the Mattox House—the farmhouse of an African-American family originally located near Savannah, Georgia. THF123775

This year, the Montgomery Improvement Association is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott with a series of very special events the first week of December in venues across the city of Montgomery, Alabama. As part of this celebration, The Henry Ford will be honored with the “Uncommon Courage” Award for its “outstanding rescue, restoration, and stewardship of the Rosa Parks Bus—the very vessel from which the Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement was launched on December 1, 1955.”

Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

Civil Rights

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