My history hero: Rosa Parks (1913-2005)
Author Ken Follett chooses civil rights activist Rosa Parks (1913-2005) as his history hero
This article was first published in the December 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine
Rosa Parks is widely acknowledged as the mother of the modern-day civil rights movement. Born in Tuskegee, Alabama, Rosa first became active in the civil rights movement when she was elected secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1943. It was in 1955, though, that Rosa, and the movement, shot to international fame when she refused to give in to a bus driver’s demands that she relinquish her seat for a white person. In doing so, Rosa sparked a mass boycott of Montgomery’s bus services that lasted over a year, and became the catalyst for the eventual end to segregation laws in southern America.
When did you first hear about Rosa Parks?
I must have first heard about Rosa at some point in the 1960s but she is someone I’ve become re-acquainted with more recently as part of my research into the civil rights movement in preparation for my next book.
What kind of person do you think she was?
I think one of the most interesting things about Rosa was that, in many ways, she was an ordinary person. She was not particularly wealthy, educated or high powered; she went to work at a department store on the bus everyday. Yet she demonstrated an act of bravery that rocked the world and that we still talk about to this day.
What made Rosa a hero?
Courage. It must have taken terrific guts to do what she did and defy both the law and social convention. There she was in Alabama, where segregation and racism were absolutely the norm and a rigid part of southern society, but she had the courage to say no, this isn’t fair.
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Some people gave the reason for her staying seated as tiredness, but she later said that she was simply tired of giving in. All her life she had had to give in to the demands of white people and she got fed up with it. It was the kind of incident that makes you put yourself in that person’s place and say: “Would I have been that brave?” In most cases, probably not.
What was her finest hour?
Without doubt, that tremendously courageous act on the bus in 1955. Rosa was one of four black people told to move by the bus driver; three of them got up and moved but she just said no. She stuck to her guns.
Her example provoked a massive reaction across the whole world and people rallied behind her. As luck would have it, her actions attracted the attention of a young preacher called Martin Luther King, who became leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which saw thousands of black people refuse to use public transport until it was desegregated. King may have organised it, but Rosa’s example started it.
Do you see any parallels between her life and your own?
Thankfully none whatsoever. To be a black person in Alabama at that time would have been tremendously hard, and Rosa was forced to live through years of enforced segregation. I’ve been a lot luckier than that.
If you could meet Rosa, what would you ask her?
I’m afraid the novelist’s curiosity comes out here. I’d love to ask her what was going through her mind at the time, and picture myself writing that scene. What were her thoughts, emotions and ideas, and what did she think would happen to her?
Ken Follett was talking to Charlotte Hodgkin. He is a Welsh author of thrillers and historical novels, who has sold more than 100m copies of his works. Four of his books have reached the number one ranking in the New York Times bestseller list.
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