By: Marc H. Morial
National Urban League
It may be difficult for many people under 50 today to fully grasp the courage Rosa Parks displayed 50 years ago while sitting on a Montgomery, Alabama public bus.
After all, one might think, all she did was say no.
In fact, Rosa Parks, who died October 24 at age 92 in her adopted hometown of Detroit, did far more.
For, as she well understood and her tormenters immediately realized, her refusal to give up her seat in the middle of a bus to a white male rider and move to the "colored section" at the back was an unacceptable transgression of the South's established, pervasive order of racial segregation—if you're black, get back: one that could be punished by any force, including murder.
Remember, earlier that same year of 1955 a fourteen-year-old black Chicagoan, Emmett Louis Till, visiting relatives in a small Mississippi town, had been brutally kidnapped, tortured, and murdered for having wolf-whistled at a white woman—and his killers had brazenly been acquitted by an all-white jury.
So, when Rosa Parks said no, and the city police were called to arrest her, she had, literally, put her life at risk.
But she had done something else, too. She had lit the match—the resulting 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott—to the nonviolent mass-action movement for racial justice that was to transform America.
In the 1940s Americans had gone abroad to fight a war to make the world safe for democracy. Rosa Parks' act—her "individual expression of a timeless longing for human dignity and freedom," in Martin Luther King Jr.'s words—signaled that now the war for democracy would be waged at home in the most dramatic way possible.
It is, of course, an exaggeration to say that Rosa Parks alone, or even largely, "made" the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
She was not the "mother" of the Movement. As she herself constantly pointed out, many, many blacks (and some whites) in Montgomery and elsewhere throughout the country had been working diligently for years awaiting the "right moment."
Some, like Thurgood Marshall and the "Brain Trust" of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, worked in the legal sphere, challenging the network of laws supporting segregation. Others, including activists in Montgomery, had been preparing to challenge the public superstructure of racism on public transportation, in parks, beaches, swimming pools, and at the polls.
Rosa Parks was part of that network of civil rights activists in Montgomery. Indeed, she and her husband, Raymond, had been involved in civil rights work since the 1930s, and she herself was secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP.
So, in that sense, she was as good a "representative" of the will of African Americans to grasp their full American citizenship as can be found in the twentieth century or any other.
Nonetheless, as she told the story in later years, she had not been looking that day, December 1, 1955, to jump-start the Movement in Montgomery all by herself. She simply wanted to get home from her job as a seamstress at a department store to prepare for a full evening of civic work.
But when the bus driver demanded her seat, Rosa Parks made her stand.
As she explained in her 1992 autobiography, My Story. "I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in."
Parks was bailed out the very night of her arrest—while the leadership of the local NAACP and the black Women's Political Council were leafleting the black community with calls for a bus boycott, and prevailing upon a young minister, newly arrived in town, named Martin Luther King, Jr. to take the presidency of the new effort.
A year later, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated Alabama's racist public transit statutes.
The struggle took a bitter economic toll on the Parks' and the ever-present threat of violence forced them to move from the South. America itself is indebted to U.S. Representative John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, for his steadfast support of the Parks (Mr. Parks died in 1977) for the last four decades.
According to Rosa Parks' obituary in the New York Times, she would recount with amusement that in later years children often wanted to "know if I was alive during slavery times. They would equate me along with Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and ask if I knew them."
Chronologically speaking, the children were wrong, of course.
But I'd say that in connecting Rosa Parks to those two legendary freedom fighters of an earlier time, the children got an important facet of their American history exactly right.
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