Rosa Parks was an American civil rights activist best known for her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, when public transport in the US state of Alabama was racially segregated. She subsequently became an iconic figure in the civil rights movement. On the centenary of her birth, the then-US president, Barack Obama, called upon all Americans to honour Rosa Parks’s “enduring legacy”.
When did you hear about Rosa Parks?
As a kid, I was interested in the civil rights movement. I read Harper Lee’s novel about racial injustice, To Kill a Mockingbird, and some of the black American writer Maya Angelou’s books, and it was then that I heard about her.
What kind of woman was she?
Rosa grew up on a farm outside Montgomery, Alabama with her grandparents and as a girl was bullied by white children. Throughout her life she was aware of the injustice she suffered as a result of her skin colour in what was then a very racially segregated society, and she joined the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) as a young woman. I think life must have been very hard for her back then.
What was her finest hour?
It was her simple act of rebellion when she refused to give up her seat for a white passenger. She was arrested, charged with, and found guilty of, violating a local city bylaw after a 30-minute trial and fined $10, plus $4 in court costs – a considerable amount at the time. Her arrest triggered the successful Montgomery bus boycott by black Americans. The 13-month protest ended with the US Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses is unconstitutional. Rosa’s actions highlighted internationally the plight of black people in the 1950s-era deep south and were a landmark in their struggle for equality in American society.
What made Parks a hero?
That one single act of defiance and bravery which paved the way for change and in due course helped make America, and in a way Britain too, a fairer society for people, regardless of their colour or creed. It’s hard to appreciate now the courage she showed in taking on authority in an era when discrimination was so commonplace and ingrained in society. Doing what she did took real guts. I also admire the fact that she did not use violence to try to achieve her ends. Rosa continued in her civil rights work into old age, working tirelessly to help young black people fulfil their full potential; she was equally vocal in calling for more black students to be given the chance to go to university.
Is her act of rebellion still relevant today?
Sadly, yes, and that’s why organisations such as Black Lives Matter, which campaigns against racism, are still needed. Tackling racism isn’t just about letting people sit where they want to sit on a bus, it’s about genuinely creating equality of opportunity for all, regardless of the colour of one’s skin.
What would you ask Parks if you could meet her?
I’d like to know how much progress on equality she thinks has been made in the decades since her famous protest.
Gabby Logan was talking to York Membery
Gabby Logan was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2020 New Year Honours for services to sports broadcasting and the promotion of women in sport
This article was first published in the April 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine