'Maxwell Opened My Eyes': Rosa Parks, WWII Defense Worker

Before her historic protest in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rosa Parks was a Home Front worker at Maxwell Airfield.

Montgomery Police Lieutenant D.H. Lacky fingerprinting Rosa Parks

Top Photo: Montgomery Police Lieutenant D.H. Lacky fingerprinting Rosa Parks on February 22, 1956, after her participation in the bus boycott. Photo courtesy of Wikicommons.

In Montgomery, Alabama, stands a memorial to Rosa Parks, noted civil rights activist widely known for her refusal to give up her bus seat to a White patron in 1955.

But unlike the bronze, life-size statue dedicated to Parks in downtown Montgomery that serves as a photo opportunity for tourists as much as it does as a reminder of her legacy, this more abstract memorial, dedicated in 2020, greets visitors to Maxwell Air Force Base. A quick turn to the right after entering the base’s gates leads to this recognition of a lesser-known aspect of Parks’s life: her time as a defense worker at Maxwell Airfield during World War II.

“I guess you could say Maxwell opened my eyes to the ugliness of Jim Crow,” Parks remarked in her autobiography. [1]

A Fierce Civil Rights Warrior

Parks’s time at Maxwell in the 1940s contributed to her growing desire to push postwar America in a new direction. Black veterans including Josea Williams and Medgar Evers returned home from a war against fascism only to face the reality that many Americans still treated them like second-class citizens. Their experiences with often-violent racism proved that the fight against racism at home was not over, and they became part of an expanding movement for social change. Parks and other women who worked in the defense industry on the Home Front were also part of this generation of activists inspired by the unfulfilled promises of freedom and motivated by the challenges in securing these rights within the United States.

Although most Americans think of Parks’s activism as beginning in 1955 with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, she was a fierce civil rights warrior for most of her life. Born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1913 and raised nearby in rural Pine Level, she later moved to Montgomery with her grandmother to attend a private school for girls. She hoped to become a teacher but withdrew from high school to take care of her family. While in Montgomery, she met her future husband, a barber named Raymond Parks, in 1931. The pair bonded over their shared interests in current affairs and local politics and married one year later. [2]

The couple’s dedication to social causes also brought them face-to-face with some of the most violent expressions of racism in the Jim Crow South. Rosa was no stranger to the terror of white supremacy. She grew up in rural Alabama with an active Ku Klux Klan chapter that terrorized her Black community but did not deter her grandfather from supporting Black leaders like Marcus Garvey and defending his family against racially motivated attacks. Meanwhile, Raymond was an active member of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and labored tirelessly to raise money for the defense of nine young Black men falsely accused by two White women of rape in Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931. Rosa and Raymond hosted meetings for supporters of the “Scottsboro Boys” at their home in Montgomery, and Rosa also organized secret voting registration drives despite the danger that Black Southerners often faced when taking to the polls. 

But Rosa Parks also witnessed the possibility of life with fewer racial restrictions during her time at Maxwell Airfield. Rosa and Raymond began working at the installation in 1941; Rosa secured a job as a seamstress at the Field Guest House, and Raymond became a barber. Maxwell began as the Wright Flying School in 1910 and was used as a repair depot during World War I before the US Army purchased the field in 1919; the War Department later redesignated it Maxwell Field. By 1940, Maxwell was a pilot-training center for the US Army Air Corps, and the base became an economic hub for Montgomery and central Alabama, drawing Black workers from across the region.

Maxwell Field in 1937

Maxwell Field in 1937. Wikimedia Commons


Opened Eyes

While Maxwell was not fully integrated until President Harry Truman issued his executive order that integrated the Armed Forces in 1948, the field’s transportation system was not segregated—a stark contrast to the city of Montgomery’s racist policies. Rosa Parks’s experiences on base were significant for her realization of the possibilities for equality. “You might just say Maxwell opened my eyes up. It was an alternative reality to the ugly policies of Jim Crow,” she later explained. [3]

She told another story that illustrated the sharp differences between the base and Montgomery:

I remember there was a white woman who lived in the same building where I worked. We would get on the base bus and sit right across from each other. She had a little boy about nine years old…Then when we’d get on the city bus, the white woman would stop at the front and we’d go to the back and the little boy would be looking at us so strangely.

Parks’s first confrontation with a racist, off-base bus driver in 1943 set her on the path to fighting for transportation integration. As historian Danielle McGuire recounts, Parks refused to comply with a practice in Montgomery that required Black riders to pay at the front of the bus, then exit and re-enter at the back. The bus driver berated Parks and pulled her by her coat off the bus. She vowed to never ride that driver’s bus again and became a member of the Montgomery NAACP shortly after the incident. [4]

A new memorial to Rosa Parks at Maxwell Air Force Base

A new memorial to Rosa Parks at Maxwell Air Force Base, dedicated in 2020. Photo: Stephanie Hinnershitz


Parks continued her activism after the war and, of course, the rest is history. Today, visitors to Montgomery can learn about her leadership in the 1955 Bus Boycott that spurred the end of discrimination in public transportation and made her the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.” Sadly, after the boycott, Raymond Parks constantly defended his wife against virulent attacks on her reputation and civil rights work by some of his customers. Maxwell responded by prohibiting discussion of “controversial” racial topics in his barbershop—previously a place where both white and Black customers openly debated a variety of topics—and Raymond walked away from his job on the base.  [5]

Historic marker honoring Rosa Parks’s legacy at Maxwell Field

Historic marker honoring Rosa Parks’s legacy at Maxwell Field as well as the aftermath of her boycott on the base. Maxwell leadership prohibited discussion of the bus boycott and other protests for both civilians and airmen. Photo: Stephanie Hinnershitz


Paying homage to Rosa Parks and the challenges she and others faced during the mid-20th century, Maxwell Air Force Base honored the civil rights hero on December 1, 2020 (the 65th anniversary of the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott), and unveiled the Rosa Parks memorial created by Ian Mangum (a 42nd Force Support Squadron team member). The crowd in attendance included the Secretary of the Air Force, the Mayor of Montgomery, and the 42nd Air Base Wing commander. 

During the ceremony, Bryan Stevenson, the Executive Director of the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, remarked on Parks’s legacy:

It is so fitting that there is a memorial…honoring Rosa Parks on a United States military based because Mrs. Parks was a fighter. She was a soldier. She took seriously the values that this country was based on. She took seriously the words in our Constitution that talked about liberty and justice for all, and  because she believed them dearly, she was willing to risk her life fighting for those values. [6]

On the 68th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, we look back on the impact of Rosa Parks on the Civil Rights Movement and acknowledge how World War II also inspired her courage in the postwar United States.


[1] Qtd. In Jean Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (New York: Beacon Press, 2015), 142.

[2]  Danielle M. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street (New York: Vintage Books, 2010), 11-13.

[3]  Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, 142.

[4]  McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street, 14.

[5]  Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, 142.

[6]  Safiya Charles,“On Rosa Parks Day, Maxwell Air Force Base unveils tribute to legendary former employee,” Montgomery Advertiser, December 1, 2020.


Stephanie Hinnershitz, PhD

Stephanie Hinnershitz is a historian of twentieth century US history with a focus on the Home Front and civil-military relations during World War II.

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