Civil Rights Icon Rosa Parks Once Worked On This Base. Now She Has Her Own Monument There

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(U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Charles Welty)

The world was a very different place back when Montgomery, Alabama's Maxwell Air Force Base was known as Maxwell Field. The Air Force was still a part of the U.S. Army Air Corps, the United States hadn't entered World War II and the Civil Rights Movement was decades away.

A civilian working at Maxwell Field's lodging would be a central figure to that movement. Rosa Parks worked as a seamstress at Maxwell's on-base hotel back in 1941. Her husband Raymond worked at the base barber shop.

On Dec. 1, 2020, exactly 65 years after Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, the city and Air Force leadership unveiled a monument to her memory on Maxwell AFB.

The monument created in her honor and unveiled in 2020 on Maxwell Air Force Base is a metal sculpture that forms her image.

It was her time as a civilian serving the airmen at Maxwell Field that opened her eyes up to the racist policies of the segregated south, she says in her biography, Rosa Parks: My Story. On the base, she could experience an integrated community. The differences on and off the installation were stark.

"You might just say Maxwell opened my eyes up," she wrote. "It was an alternative to the ugly policies of Jim Crow."

(U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Charles Welty) 1
(U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Charles Welty) 

On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks was arrested and jailed for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. The local segregation ordinances required Black people to sit in their own section at the back of the bus and then give up their seats if the whites only section was full.

Parks, sitting in the first row of the "colored" section, refused to relinquish her seat. As a member of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Parks had been waiting for this moment to challenge Montgomery's unjust Jim Crow ordinances.

Within a week, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and the Black citizens of Montgomery formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and organized the now-famous Montgomery Bus Boycott, which put the city's public transportation system into serious financial distress.

The effort was not without risk or blowback from the racially segregated town. White citizens of Montgomery formed their own action committee. King and other leaders of the MIA were threatened at home, shot at, firebombed and more. Though segregated, the city stopped Black riders from using the bus system for a time as the buses were the frequent targets of violence.

In just over a year, Montgomery's segregation laws were challenged in a federal court and struck down as violations of the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection clause. The city was forced to desegregate its bus system.

Rosa Parks, who became known as "the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement," was among the first to ride the newly desegregated bus system.

When Parks died in 2005, she laid in honor (the civilian equivalent to lying in state) at the Capitol Rotunda, one of only four people to ever do so.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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