Correction to This Article
The Oct. 25 obituary of Rosa Parks incorrectly stated that she received the Medal of Honor. She was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, the highest award that Congress bestows.
Rosa Parks, 1913-2005

Bus Ride Shook a Nation's Conscience

Rosa Lee Parks, whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man sparked the modern civil rights movement, died Monday. She was 92.
Rosa Lee Parks, whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man sparked the modern civil rights movement, died Monday. She was 92. (AP)

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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Rosa Parks, the dignified African American seamstress whose refusal to surrender a bus seat to a white man launched the modern civil rights movement and inspired generations of activists, died last night at her home in Detroit, the Wayne County medical examiner's office said. She was 92.

No cause of death was reported immediately. She had dementia since 2002.

"Rosa was a true giant of the civil rights movement," said U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), in whose office Parks worked for more than 20 years. "There are very few people who can say their actions and conduct changed the face of the nation, and Rosa Parks is one of those individuals."

Parks said that she didn't fully realize what she was starting when she decided not to move on that Dec. 1, 1955, evening in Montgomery, Ala. It was a simple refusal, but her arrest and the resulting protests began the complex cultural struggle to legally guarantee equal rights to Americans of all races.

Within days, her arrest sparked a 380-day bus boycott, which led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that desegregated her city's public transportation. Her arrest also triggered mass demonstrations, made the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famous, and transformed schools, workplaces and housing.

Hers was "an individual expression of a timeless longing for human dignity and freedom," King said in his book "Stride Toward Freedom."

"She was planted there by her personal sense of dignity and self-respect. She was anchored to that seat by the accumulated indignities of days gone and the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn."

She was the perfect test-case plaintiff, a fact that activists realized only after she had been arrested. Hardworking, polite and morally upright, Parks had long seethed over the everyday indignities of segregation, from the menial rules of bus seating and store entrances to the mortal societal endorsement of lynching and imprisonment.

She was an activist already, secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP. A member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church all her life, Parks admired the self-help philosophy of Booker T. Washington -- to a point. But even as a child, she thought accommodating segregation was the wrong philosophy. She knew that in the previous year, two other women had been arrested for the same offense, but neither was deemed right to handle the role that was sure to become one of the most controversial of the century.

But it was as if Parks was born to the role. Rosa McCauley was born Feb. 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama, the home of Booker T. Washington's renowned Tuskegee Institute, which drew many African American intelligentsia. She was the daughter of a carpenter and a teacher, was small for her age, had poor health and suffered chronic tonsillitis. Still a child when her parents separated, she moved with her mother to Pine Level, Ala., and grew up in an extended family that included her maternal grandparents.

Her mother taught Parks at home until she was 11, when she was enrolled in the Industrial School for Girls in Montgomery, where her aunt lived. Segregation was enforced, often violently. As an adult, she recalled watching her grandfather guard the front door with a shotgun as the Ku Klux Klan paraded down their road. Her younger brother, Sylvester, a decorated war hero in World War II, returned to a South that regarded uniformed veterans of color as "uppity" and demonstrated its disdain with beatings.

She married barber Raymond Parks in 1932 at her mother's house. They shared a passion for civil rights; her husband was an early defender of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of young African Americans whom rights advocates asserted were falsely accused of raping two white women.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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