First, she lost her bus seat. Next, she lost the court case over her right to keep that bus seat. Then, she lost her job because she represented change in the legal and social order of the Jim Crow South. Rosa Parks lost a lot. Her husband, Raymond, was compelled to leave his job—his employer refused to allow Rosa’s name to be mentioned at work—and the couple was forced to move to Detroit to find employment. However, in the end, what Parks lost for herself mattered little to her. She understood what was at stake by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man; she knew there would be better days for all once everyone got past this poor moment.
Rosa Parks had been schooled in the ways of segregation all her life, and she also had a formal, learned knowledge of the practices of nonviolent civil disobedience. If that was not enough, she had come to further understand the struggles of blacks in the South in her work with the Montgomery
chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Rosa Parks, otherwise a quiet and unassuming seamstress, was an informed Jim Crow lawbreaker.
Though she understood the abject paradox of the system within which she lived, it was not her intention to become the center and the symbol of an American justice movement. Historian Douglas Brinkley notes, “Rosa Parks did not wake up on the morning of December 1, 1955, primed for a showdown over civil rights with the local police.” However, she had had quite enough mistreatment at the hands of her fellow citizens. Brinkley adds, “But when a white man tried to use an unfair system to determine her dignity, Rosa Parks realized that it was her burden to stay put.”
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, written in April 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:
But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television . . . then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
The sum of King’s thoughts were going through Parks’s mind on December 1, 1955, even though it would be another seven years before he wrote them. When she refused to give up her seat on the Montgomery bus, Rosa Parks was about to begin losing. By the time she finished losing, the world would know her name, and African Americans bound by racist doctrine for scores of generations would soon begin to win back some of the rights bestowed upon all humans simply because of their humanity. All this happened because a quiet woman knew that the first loss—her smaller loss—would ultimately be the seed out of which the greater victory would grow.
Rosa Parks, who died in Detroit in 2005, was born in 1913, one hundred years ago on this date, February 4.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits
Douglas Brinkley, Rosa Parks: A Life (New York: Penguin, 2000)
Rosa Parks / Marshall D. Rumbaugh / 1983 / painted limewood / With Base: 99.1 x 96.5 x 30.5cm (39 x 38 x 12") Without Base: 94 x 88.9 x 18.4cm (37 x 35 x 7 1/4") / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution