"I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free... so other people would be also free."
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On a cold December day, (December 1, 1955 to be exact), a woman boarded a bus, tired and worn out after a long day at work. It was a time, when your colour decided the seats you would sit on in buses, which restaurants you would get entry in, or if you were worth even the slightest shred of humanity. The woman took a seat which she was soon asked to vacate so a ‘white man’ could take it instead. She refused. And that sparked a revolution.
“The first lady of civil right”, “the mother of the freedom movement”; Rosa Parks was born in 1913 to a teacher and carpenter residing in Alabama. From her childhood itself, she saw discrimination rear its ugly head, as white students had the privilege to take the bus to school, whereas black students were forced to walk to theirs instead.
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“The bus was among the first ways I realized there was a black world and a white world,” she recalled. She would watch as her grandfather guarded the door with a shotgun in his hands as the Ku Klux Klan marched up and down the street in front of their house. She faced years of bullying at the hands of white students, and often retaliated with physical defense.
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There were many factors and instances in Rosa’s life that paved way for her eventual activism. Living under the constant fear of the Ku Klux Klan, and clashing with her white peers, she learnt the hard way the colour of her skin came with repercussions. However, studying in an all-black school with an all-white faculty, she also learnt that not all whites were bigots, and that she had the capabilities to achieve what she strived for.
It was in this school that she met Johnnie Carr, and that friendship lasted a lifetime. Talking about her dearest friend, Carr said, “I was noisy and talkative, but she was very quiet, and always stayed out of trouble. But whatever she did, she always put herself completely into it. But she was so quiet you would never have believed she would get to the point of being arrested.”
Her refusal to give up her seat resulted in her arrest. But the matter was far from over. The humiliation and resentment had reached a point of absolute saturation, and what came next changed the course of history forever.
The word of her arrest spread and on December 5th, the Women’s Political Council organized a boycott to protest the sheer mistreatment that had been meted out to Parks and many others before her. “I didn’t get on the bus with the intention of being arrested,” she said later. “I got on the bus with the intention of going home.” Unaware of the fact that her actions would spark a 381 day boycott, her own personal boycott had begun. She’d decided that she would never step into a bus that was segregated.
Parks was highly respected in the black community, and so her arrest sparked a furious fire in the hearts of African Americans. The boycott also led to the rise of a then little known minister who went by the name of Martin Luther King Jr. The boycott cost the company a great deal of money, but the city would just not let up. The boycott leaders argued that the segregation was against the 14th Amendment, but the Montgomery county lawyers appealed. It was on November 16th, finally, when the court declared the segregation laws, unlawful.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott had far-reaching results. Similar non-violent protests arose in southern cities as well. People were sure that if it worked in Montgomery, it would be as impactful in other cities as well.
The aftermath forced Rosa to leave Montgomery due to death threats and employment blacklisting. Her husband too, quit his job because his employer forbade him from speaking of his wife or the movement. She proceeded to publicly speak about her issues, and moved to Detroit. Though the city attempted to cultivate a progressive environment, Rosa still faced discrimination. She participated in the movement for open and fair housing. Throughout her life, she struggled with discrimination and segregation, but did not back down in her fight against injustice. Her silent activism paved way for many changes to come.
Rosa passed away at the age of 92 in her home in Detroit. She didn’t have any children, and outlived her husband and only sibling, who passed away due to cancer a few years before her. She was survived by her sister-in-law, thirteen nieces and nephews and several cousins. We have come a long way since the arrest that sparked a revolution, but in many ways, we are still stuck in our old ways. Discrimination against blacks continues today, on a slightly smaller scale. In India too, we read cases of brutal and unfair treatment of African Americans. In some schools in Georgia, USA, segregation still exists. A lot has changed in the last hundred years or so, but we have a long way to go. Rosa Parks left a legacy behind, and as the future generation, we must continue what she started.
Edited by Diya Mathew.