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.
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Bus Ride Shook a Nation's Conscience
As Parks went into her trial, a young girl called out, "Oh, she's so sweet. They've messed with the wrong one now." The crowd took up the latter half of the cry.
She was found guilty of violating the segregation law and fined. Her attorneys, afraid that the charge might be overturned without the underlying law being addressed, filed a petition with the U.S. District Court that directly challenged the law. It was a wise strategy: Parks's original appeal was dismissed and the conviction upheld, so it was the second case that went to the Supreme Court about a year later, and the court overturned the segregation laws.
Although her action fueled the smoldering rights movement, there had been sparks before. A five-week bus boycott in 1900 in Montgomery succeeded in breaking segregation, but 20 years later, the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan brought it back. A Supreme Court decision in 1946, a case argued by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, outlawed Jim Crow segregation in interstate transportation. A 1953 bus boycott in Baton Rouge, La., desegregated that city's public transit. A Columbia, S.C., woman sued, and won, over segregation of her city's buses in 1954.
Parks, who had never been anything but poor, suffered financially in the immediate aftermath of the December arrest.
"In fact if I had let myself think too deeply about what might happen to me, I might have gotten off the bus," she said in her autobiography.
She lost her job at the department store. Her husband quit his job after his boss ordered that no mention be made of "Rosa" or the case. She traveled extensively, speaking and raising funds for the legal fight.
Fed up with telephone death threats and worried about the firebombings of supporters' houses, the Parks moved to Detroit in August 1957, to live near her younger brother. In 1958, Parks accepted a job at Hampton Institute in Virginia as a hostess at an inn, but there wasn't room for her husband and mother, and she moved back after a year and began working as a seamstress.
In 1965, she became a staff assistant for Conyers, working for him until she retired in 1988. Her husband died in 1977, and her mother died in 1980.
In 1987, with the help of Elaine Eason Steele, Parks founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Improvement, a youth assistance organization in Detroit. Its basic program takes young people on an educational tour that visits sites of importance in the civil rights movement, from the Underground Railroad on.
Even after that, Parks's life remained difficult. She was hospitalized in 1994 after a burglar broke into her house and beat and robbed her. After her recovery, she moved to a high-rise building in downtown Detroit. Five years later, upset at the unauthorized use of her name in a title of a song by the rap group OutKast, she sued. The suit was unsuccessful.
Near the end of her life, accolades belatedly arrived. Historians noted that she had often been left off the dais at anniversary events of the rights movement. She was a late addition to the Detroit greeting committee when Nelson Mandela came to the United States in 1990. But upon spotting her in the reception line, historian Brinkley said, the Nobel Peace Prize winner paid tribute by chanting her name.
A museum-and-library facility on the Montgomery corner where she boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus is named for her. She was given the Medal of Honor, the highest award that the U.S. government bestows, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award. More than 40 colleges and universities gave her honorary doctorates, and her name is cited in virtually every U.S. history book that addresses the civil rights movement.
Staff writers Allan Lengel and Martin Weil contributed to this report.