Encyclopedia Womannica

Warriors: Rosa Parks

Episode Summary

Rosa Parks (1913-2005) was a pioneering civil rights activist whose courageous resistance against legalized racism, segregation and second-class citizenship helped set in motion one of the largest social movements in American history.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s warrior was a pioneering civil rights activist whose courageous resistance against legalized racism, segregation and second-class citizenship helped set in motion one of the largest social movements in American history. Let’s talk about Rosa Parks.

 Rosa Louise McCauley was born on February 4th, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama to James McCauley, a carpenter, and his wife Leona, who worked as a teacher. 

When Rosa was just two years old, she, her mother, and her younger brother moved to Pine Level, Alabama to live with her grandparents on their farm. 

Though there were many happy times in her childhood, Rosa grew up in a time and place that was terrifying for a young black girl. She would later say about this period, “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.” This fear was not unfounded in Alabama at the time. 

When Rosa was 11, her mother enrolled her in the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls where she thrived. This progressive private school was devoted to providing vocational and academic education to African American girls. It was founded by liberal reformer and education activist Alice White in 1886. 

 After graduation, Rosa chose to attend Alabama State Teachers College, which is known today as Alabama State University. But when her grandmother fell ill, Rosa was forced to drop out. 

When Rosa was 19, she met and married local barber and civil rights activist Raymond Parks. The two settled in Montgomery and joined the local chapter of the NAACP. For years, they quietly worked to improve life for African Americans in their own community and across the segregated South, but progress was slow. 

Eventually Rosa worked her way up through the organization and was elected secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. She was a major organizer and leader in the Civil Rights movement in Alabama.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa boarded a Montgomery city bus like she did most days. But instead of heading to the back of the bus to the segregated seats designated for black passengers, Rosa purposely sat in front. When white passengers started to board, filling up the bus, the driver asked her to move. Rosa refused. Rosa was jailed and fined, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the largest and most impactful boycotts in American history, was born. 

In direct response to what would become known as “the bus incident,” the young pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery started a group called the Montgomery Improvement Association. His name was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This newly formed association called for boycotting the city buses. The bus boycott lasted for 381 days and brought unprecedented world-wide media coverage and attention to the Civil Rights movement, as well as to Rosa and Dr. King. 

Eventually a Supreme Court decision struck down the ordinance under which Rosa was jailed and fined and found racial segregation on public transportation to be unconstitutional. 

Over the years, some have tried to diminish Rosa’s role in the Montgomery bus boycott and the civil rights movement as a whole by claiming that she was just a seamstress who didn’t move because she was tired, not because she was making a political statement. This version of events completely ignores the fact that Rosa’s actions on the bus planned, and that she was already a major figure in the Montgomery Civil Rights movement working to end segregation. 

As Rosa herself explained, “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

In 1957, Rosa and her husband Raymond moved to Detroit, Michigan where Rosa took a job as a staff member for U.S. Representative John Conyers. Rosa continued her activism work there, and played a significant role in Detroit’s Civil Rights movement. To honor her for all she had done, the Southern Christian Leadership Council established an annual Rosa Parks Freedom Award. 

In 1996, Rosa was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton. In 1999, she received the Congressional Gold Medal. 

Rosa died of natural causes at her home in Detroit on October 24th, 2005. She was 92 years old. 

After her death, Rosa’s casket was placed in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building for two days so that people could pay their respects, an honor usually only reserved for U.S. Presidents. Rosa is the only woman and only the second African American in U.S. history to be given this honor. 

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Warrior.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!