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Rosa Parks helped ignite the civil rights movement

Posted: March 10, 2012 - 5:13pm

When JoAnn said it was time for the story of a great black woman in history to be told, I agreed.

I spent a lot of time trying to find just the right person. I’m not much impressed by sports or entertainment figures. I’m interested mainly in the civil rights movement. A better example of a great black activist could not be found than Rosa Parks.

Rosa McCauley was born in 1913 in Tuskegee, Ala. She was unable to finish high school with her class because she cared for her dying grandmother, and then for her ill mother.

She married Raymond Parks in 1932. Raymond pushed Rosa to get her high school diploma, and in 1934, she did. Raymond was a barber, Rosa was a seamstress, and both volunteered for the NAACP.

In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a public bus in Montgomery, Ala., an act that is called the beginning of the modern civil rights movement. I’ve lived in Thomson since 1981 and I don’t know, but I believe that Thomson never had a public bus system.

The way the system worked in all Southern towns that had buses during the ’40s and ’50s was that the white people sat in the front of the bus and the black people sat in the back. The seats were just as good in the back as in the front, and I always tried to ride in the very best seat, the large seat that went across the entire back. Eventually, some older white woman would tell me to move up front, like I didn’t know the rules. Or, some white man would ask me what I was trying to do, boy, like I was on some satanic mission to integrate the South. We folks over 65 well remember exactly how it used to be.

Rosa Parks told her story to staffers at the Academy of Achievement in Williamsburg, Va. in 1995. She said that she was arrested on December 1, 1955 for refusing to stand up on the orders of a bus driver. She had taken a seat just back of where the white people were sitting, which was the rule. After the third stop, the bus filled and one white man had to stand. The bus driver came back and told four black people to stand up. Three did, but Rosa said she would not. He told her he would have her arrested, and she said he may do that, like she gave him permission. And of course, he did.

The bus stayed where it was. The black people, fearing trouble, got off, but the white folks just waited. Two policemen came on board and asked her if the driver told her to stand. She said he had. One said, “Why didn’t you?” She said she didn’t think she should have to stand up. “Why do you push us around?” she asked. She quotes the policeman as saying, “I don’t know, but the law is the law, and you’re under arrest.”

The next evening, Dec. 2, there was a meeting at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King was the pastor. Rosa told her story. The trial was Dec. 5, and she was found guilty. An appeal was filed, and she didn’t pay a fine. There was another meeting that night at the Holt Street Baptist Church. In her support, the people stayed off the buses that day, and it work so well that they voted to continue the boycott until changes for the better were made.

Rosa said she wasn’t angry when she didn’t stand up, she just wanted to take an opportunity to tell everyone she was tired of being treated in that manner, and that people had endured it too long. She had no idea how the other black people would react to her arrest. The result was that the Montgomery Improvement Association was formed, with Dr. King as its spokesman.

The Montgomery Boycott lasted 381 days. It crippled the bus company. The city finally agreed to treat black people with respect, and let the seating be on a first-come basis. The boycotters had not even asked for that. They expected to still be in the back, but if all the black seats were full, to be allowed to sit in the white section. There was no violence; Dr. King continuously preached nonviolence as the only way to success. He said if there was any blood, let it be from the black people.

Parks moved to Detroit, Mich., in 1957. She worked for Congressman John Conyers from 1965 to 1988. Raymond died in 1977. In 1987, she co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development in honor of Raymond. He had almost no schooling, but had done such a good job on his self-education that people thought him a college graduate. The purpose of the Institute is to motivate and direct youth to their highest potential.

In 1996, President Clinton gave Parks the Medal of Freedom, the highest award a civilian can receive.

In 1998, the Capitol building was attacked, and two men died defending it. U.S. Capitol policeman Jacob Chestnut became the first black and Det. John Gibson became the first nongovernmental person to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. In 2005, Parks became the first woman, the second black and the second nongovernmental person to lie in state in the Rotunda. She was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 2008.

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