But throughout most of my life and that of many other African Americans across the United States, there was one person who always seemed to be in our consciousness. This past Monday, our mother, Ms. Rosa Parks, died of natural causes at the age of 92. I say “our mother” because like a mother, she was always there.
From as early as I could remember, the name Rosa Parks was mentioned quite often. And it wasn’t just in school although that’s probably my first recollection of her. Who was this woman whom almost every adult I knew would speak of with glowing admiration? It was as if she were a member of the family.
Well, she was.
Ms. Parks didn’t set out to become a pioneer. She was just trying to get home after a hard day at work one December afternoon in 1955 in Montgomery, Ala. And if we know our mothers, we know that they work long and hard. And when they are done with work, it’s time to rest and you best not get in the way of that. That’s all she wanted to do, this quiet and petite seamstress.
But she did something you weren’t supposed to do back then, not in the days of Jim Crow”those little unspoken but tenaciously enforced rules that dictated what black folk could or could not do. She sat down in the front of the bus. She actually did sit in the “colored” section near the front of the bus. But the way Jim Crow worked, designated seats for blacks were marked by a sign that could moved anywhere at anytime. When a white man got on, the driver moved the sign behind Ms. Parks. And when she was asked to move back, she said no. Who knew that “no” would change America?
She was arrested, booked and jailed. Her dignified defiance resulted in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It helped propel a little known Baptist preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. to a national figure. Parks’ decision also resulted in a 1956 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found it unconstitutional to segregate bus service. That ruling set the stage for other challenges to segregationist laws.
Ms. Parks is the single most significant figure in the post-slavery, Civil Rights movement. Her example is one that I most identify with. You don’t need to be the biggest, strongest or loudest person to get things done. Strength can come in any form, and sometimes your actions can speak louder than your voice. The Civil Rights movement has seen its share of leaders, some of whom are no longer with us. Martin, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers were gone too soon. Fred Hampton and a number of Black Panthers didn’t make it. Jesse Jackson and a few others went into politics. But there was always Rosa Parks. She outlasted them all.
Her life wasn’t necessarily set up for such a lofty legacy. She was born Rosa Lee McCauley in 1913. The daughter of James and Leona McCauley, she grew up on a farm in Tuskegee, Ala. She married Raymond Parks in 1932, himself active in civil rights causes. She became a member of the American Civil Rights Movement in 1943 and worked as a secretary for the Montgomery branch of the NAACP.
After becoming a Civil Rights icon, she and her husband moved to Detroit to flee the death threats that became a part of their daily lives while in Montgomery.
Ms. Parks garnered numerous awards and accolades later in life, including receiving the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999.
She had been in failing health for some time. She was diagnosed with Progressive Dementia in 2004. She died in her apartment at a Detroit nursing home. Ms. Park’s body will lie in state in Montgomery, Oct. 29-30, and return to Detroit, Nov. 1, to lie in state at the Charles H. Wright Museum for African-American History. Her funeral in on Nov. 2.
Mama Parks, we will miss and will never forget your legacy.