Rosa Parks, whose refusal to surrender her seat to a white man on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, helped spark the civil-rights movement, died of natural causes at her Detroit home on Monday. She was 92.
Parks’ attorney, Shirley Kaigler, told Reuters that she’d died while taking a nap, in the presence of friends and relatives. “She just fell asleep and didn’t wake up,” Kaigler said.
A seamstress recognized as the matriarch of the civil-rights movement, Parks’ December 1, 1955, act of defiance ignited the Montgomery bus boycott — and, in turn, shaped the course of human rights in the United States.
Parks was jailed and fined $14 for not giving up her seat. Five days later, thousands gathered at Montgomery’s Holt Street Baptist Church. It was there that a 26-year-old Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. called for diplomatic opposition to segregation; the caucus led to a 381-day boycott of the city’s bus system, which influenced the city’s leaders to end the practice.
In an interview with The Detroit News, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick called Parks one of the “most important figures in the history of the world. She ignited a fire in this country. The world owes her a debt of gratitude. I think this is a day we all can remember, just like we remember [December 1] 1955.”
Kilpatrick added that the city is planning to host a public memorial honoring Parks on December 1, the 50th anniversary of her historic stance against segregation.
“I thank God she died as she lived … peacefully,” Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit NAACP, told the paper. “Rosa Parks definitely made an impact on us in terms of what we did and what we have to do. Here was a woman who was attacked in Detroit; [the attacker] knocked her down and took her purse, and she wound up forgiving him.”
In his 2000 biography “Rosa Parks,” author and historian Douglas Brinkley noted, “Her name is a code word against totalitarian governments. There are really three names that have really resonated in the shanty towns of Third World countries around the world. They are Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Bob Marley. They are more loved by poor people than any other historical figures in recent memory.”
Brinkley recalled Parks’ visit with former South African president Nelson Mandela back in 1990; Mandela was overcome with emotion during the meeting. “Tears filled his eyes as he walked up to the small, old woman with her hair in two silver braids crossed atop her head,” Brinkley wrote. “And, in a low, melodious tone, Mandela began to chant ’Rosa, Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks.’ ”
Parks made headlines in 1999 when she filed a lawsuit against Outkast claiming defamation and trademark infringement for using her name without consent in the hit song “Rosa Parks” (see “Rosa Parks Upset At Outkast For Unauthorized Use Of Her Name” ). The suit was settled earlier this year when Outkast, the band’s label, Sony BMG Music Entertainment, and two other companies resolved to become partners in developing educational programs to enlighten today’s youth about Parks’ life and civil-rights legacy.