From Montgomery to Detroit: Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks and Bill Clinton | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Winner of the Fall 2017 StMU History Media Award for

Best Article in the Category of “Social History”

Rosa Parks, a strong, independent Civil Rights Activist, stood up for what she believed in. She’s known for her courageous acts dealing with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the early phase of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. But what happened in her life after these important events?

As we know, Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat on a Montgomery bus in 1955. She entered the bus, saw that it was quite crowded with one seat available located in the front “Whites Only” section of the bus. As more passengers boarded the bus, the bus driver demanded that he needed the seat Rosa was sitting in. She refused, and she was arrested.1

Rosa Parks being booked | 1955 | Courtesy of America’s Library

After her arrest on that December 1, 1955, Edgar Nixon, another Civil Rights Activist, paid her one-hundred-dollar bond. Immediately following her bail, she proceeded to file a lawsuit against the National City Lines bus company for its segregation practices. After weeks and weeks of this being an active case, the judges finally concluded. The court ruled bus segregation to be unconstitutional. The year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott finally came to a victorious end in Alabama in December 1956.2 During the boycott, Parks was invited by the United Auto Workers Union (UAW) to come to Detroit to speak to the union’s members. Local members of the UAW even raised the money to bring Rosa in. She stayed at the Garfield Hotel because blacks were not allowed to enter or reside at any downtown hotels. The mayor of the suburb of Dearborn had made his views on segregation clear: “Negroes can’t get in here. . . These people are so anti-colored, much more than you in Alabama.”3 Rosa Parks speech about the Montgomery boycott had a great impact on the UAW membership in Detroit.

Rosa Parks became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. Her leadership skills and perseverance led to multiple doors opened for her, although at first she and her husband found getting employment difficult. In 1957, Rosa Parks moved to Detroit where her brother Sylvester lived. In 1964, Parks helped John Conyers campaign for Congressman, fighting for “jobs, justice, and peace” for Michigan’s first Congressional District. Certain laws prohibited some of Detroit’s residents from voting. Rosa was able to help Conyers win the election by obtaining the help of Martin Luther King. With King’s endorsement, Conyers won by a margin of 84%. Conyers then hired Rosa Parks as his secretary and receptionist, a position she held until 1988. Her daily tasks included dealing with issues such as, education, housing, and segregation.4

White’s protest against black migration | 1963 | Courtesy of Jeanne Theoharis

The Detroit that Rosa Parks moved to in 1957 was highly segregated. After World War II, Virginia Park, the historic district of Detroit where Parks lived, had become overcrowded, like many other sections of Detroit where African Americans were restricted. The district was further disrupted by the building of a highway, requiring the relocation of 43,000 citizens of Detroit, 70% of whom were African American. This led to increased frustration by Detroit’s African-American population, who were denied access to Detroit’s suburb housing, but told that Detroit was “colorblind” when it came to housing discrimination.5 When blacks attempted to move into the white suburban areas, realtors discouraged them and banks were very hesitant to make housing loans to them. If they succeeded, violence typically followed. By 1963, black citizens began to protest these closed housing practices. On June 23, 1963, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King joined to lead Detroit’s Great March to Freedom to protest these unfair housing practices. This march drew a crowd over 200,000 people.6

Rosa also recognized that inner-city black students in Detroit, as elsewhere, didn’t receive the kind of preparation in their public schools to go to college. Growing up, Rosa herself barely had the opportunity to attend school, let alone college. With the assistance of Representative John Conyers, she raised government funds to open the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation. This Foundation gives Michigan high school seniors the opportunity to pursue a college education when they exemplify the ideals of demonstrating academic skills, community involvement, and economic need. This has been very beneficial for hundreds of students from poor Michigan communities since its founding in 1980. Although the process of creating this scholarship was very rigorous, Rosa was able to accomplish this goal.2

On October 24, 2005, Rosa Parks died from natural causes. She is still recognized to this day for her courageous acts.8

  1. Julie Bosman, Once A Stop for Rosa Parks (New York: The New York Times, 2016), 2-3.
  2. Julie Bosman, Once A Stop for Rosa Parks (New York: The New York Times, 2016), 2-3.
  3. Jeanne Theoharis, “The Northern promised Land that wasn’t: Rosa Parks and the Black Freedom struggle in Detroit,” OAH Magazine of History Vol. 26 No. 1 (2012): 23-24.
  4. Jeanne Theoharis, “The Northern promised Land that wasn’t: Rosa Parks and the Black Freedom struggle in Detroit,” OAH Magazine of History Vol. 26 No. 1 (2012): 22-25.
  5. Jeanne Theoharis, “The Northern promised Land that wasn’t: Rosa Parks and the Black Freedom struggle in Detroit,” OAH Magazine of History Vol. 26 No. 1 (2012): 24.
  6.  Jeanne Theoharis, “The Northern promised Land that wasn’t: Rosa Parks and the Black Freedom struggle in Detroit,” OAH Magazine of History Vol. 26 No. 1 (2012): 24.
  7. Julie Bosman, Once A Stop for Rosa Parks (New York: The New York Times, 2016), 2-3.
  8. Brinkley Douglas, Rosa Parks: A Penguin Life (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 27-35.

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51 Responses

  1. I’m glad the article expands on Rosa Park’s life including the bus incident that she was made famous across the whole nation for. I’m glad she was able to fight for the rights of people of color. She was able to help improve the lives of millions of people across the entirety of the United States of America. Thankfully strong people like her have existed to pave the way for our modern and accepting society.

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