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As thousands of mourners in Montgomery, Alabama; Washington, D.C.; and Detroit attended memorials for Rosa Parks following her death on Oct. 24, civil rights activists and historians sought to define the legacy of the soft-spoken woman dubbed the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.” She was 92.
Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus on Dec. 1, 1955, sparked a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system.
Unlike the more vocal faces of the civil rights movement, Parks largely stayed out of the public eye after her act of defiance. However, she inspired the events that led to the outlaw of segregation.
“The mission, the moment, and the lady met at the precise time in order for her symbolism to have the power that it generated for the rest of us,” says Russell Adams, chairman of the department of Afro-American studies at Howard University.
Parks engaged in a lifetime of civil rights activism through such organizations as the NAACP. In 1957, she left Alabama partly to escape death threats and moved to Detroit, where she worked for Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) as an administrative assistant.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), chairman of the movement’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee between 1963 and 1966, pointed out in a statement that Parks’ action ensured “that a new, young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. was called upon to be the spokesperson and leader of the movement that would ultimately become the Montgomery Bus Boycott.”
In 1987, Parks co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, named for her late husband and dedicated to motivating youth. Its flagship program teaches about monumental events in African American history, such as the Underground Railroad and the civil rights movement.
The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, convener of the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda and president emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, hopes Parks’ influence lasts for years to come. “I would hope that to young black women, she would set a goal for them to reach for and that they would carry themselves with dignity and with grace,” he says.
After her death, Parks was the first woman and second African American to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda, an honor mostly bestowed upon presidents and war heroes.
While in life, Parks was seen as a symbol of peaceful resistance; for many, her death “symbolizes the passing of a generation in the African American freedom struggle,” says historian David L. Chappell, author of A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow.