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Black History Month - Great Figures of American History: Maria Stewart and Rosa Parks

Black History Month - Great Figures of American History: Maria Stewart and Rosa Parks

Black History Month Celebration

Each day this week we will be highlighting the life and work of a great Black American who has had a major influence on our nation's history. For each person we highlight, we will be providing a brief biography, a few quotes, and suggestions for further learning. (See all great figures.) 

Yesterday, we highlighted the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Today we would like to draw your attention to two people – Maria Stewart and Rosa Parks. 

Born in Connecticut in 1803, Maria Stewart was an abolitionist, a fighter for racial justice, and a supporter of women’s rights.  After moving to Boston, Stewart became a member of the Boston’s African Baptist Church and helped to influence the writings of such famous abolitionists as David Walker, William Lloyd Garrison, and Frederick Douglass.  In 1831 she published an abolitionist essay, Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality. The quote below reflects Stewart’s anger with the injustice of slavery and her willingness to openly confront her white listeners:

“Our souls are fired with the same love of liberty and independence with which your souls are fired…” 

Rosa Parks, born in 1913, carried on the tradition of resistance that Stewart helped establish.  In 1955, Parks became famous for refusing to give up her front row seat on a bus in Montgomery Alabama. In not giving up her seat, Parks was protesting Montgomery’s racist Jim Crow laws that required Black Americans to sit in the back of a bus.  Upon refusing, local police arrested Parks. In response, local leaders, including E.D. Nixon and Dr. King, helped organized a boycott of city buses. 

For 381 days, African Americans in Montgomery walked to work, carpooled, or hitchhiked. Some walked as far as 12 miles. One person rode a mule.  The boycott was not easy. Protestors faced constant verbal and physical harassment – and the Montgomery police arrested several protestors.  Despite the intimidation, the boycotters persisted.  They took the movement’s case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled (in November 1956) that the Montgomery bus-segregation rules were unconstitutional. After the ruling, and as a direct result of the boycott that was inspired by Ms. Parks, bus company leaders agreed to desegregate their buses. 

The success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott catapulted Ms. Parks and Dr. King into a national spotlight and demonstrated the success of non-violent civil disobedience.  The Civil Rights Movement was born and over the course of the next dozen years it proved to be one of the most successful protest movements in American history. The quotes from Parks below reflect her determination and courage:  

“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically…No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

“There were times when it would have been easy to fall apart or to go in the opposite direction, but somehow I felt that if I took one more step, someone would come along to join me.”

For further information on Maria Stewart click here. For further information on Rosa Parks, you might like to read her autobiography, Rosa Parks: My Story and watch The Rosa Parks Story starring Angela Basset.