Issue #218 -------
November 3, 2005
Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be
purchased at the price of chains and slavery?
Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what
course others may take, but as for me,
give me liberty or give me death.
Patrick Henry (1736-1799)
The power of a single soul can be enormous when joined with the courage of conviction. While many curse the darkness that engulfs them, a few dare to light a candle. Such a noble spirit was Rosa Parks! Countless men and women the world over owe a debt of gratitude to a simple, unassuming woman who, on December 1, 1955, chose to confront the growing evil of racial bigotry consuming her land. Weary of the oppression of one race over another, she dared to defy this tradition of tyranny. Her actions that day would prove to be the spark that mobilized a people and set in motion a movement to bring greater equity and equality among diverse peoples. In the years that followed, she became the symbol of all that was wrong, as well as all that was right, with our nation. That which she opposed, needed to be opposed, and the spirit with which she confronted this oppression of a people has immortalized this woman. As long as prejudice exists in this world, and as long as people long in their hearts for liberty, the name Rosa Parks will be called to memory, and other courageous souls, both men and women, young and old, black and white, will be called forth to do battle for the cause of freedom.
She was born in Tuskegee, Alabama on February 4, 1913. Little Rosa Louise McCauley's mother (Leona Edwards McCauley) was a school teacher, and her father (James McCauley) a carpenter. While still quite young, her family moved to Pine Level, Alabama to live with her grandparents. This was a hard-working family, and Rosa was not unfamiliar with difficult times and poverty. Nevertheless, she was able to get an education. She graduated from the all African-American Booker T. Washington High School in 1928, and then she went on to attend the Alabama State Teachers College (now known as Alabama State University), although she never graduated. She married Raymond Parks, who was employed as a barber, in 1932, and the two became very active in various local civil rights causes. They remained together until Raymond's death in 1977. Rosa was a member of the NAACP Youth Council, and in 1943 was elected to serve as the secretary of the Montgomery branch of that organization. She worked at several different occupations over the years, including being a housekeeper, selling insurance, and a seamstress. At the time of her sudden, unexpected "rise to fame" she was working as a tailor's assistant for a department store in Montgomery, Alabama.
It should be pointed out that although Rosa Parks was active in civil rights efforts, it was largely directed in positive efforts. She had no intention of causing any problems or starting a "movement." She just wanted to see all people treated equally, and for all to enjoy the same freedoms. Nevertheless, in Montgomery during those days, she, along with the other African-Americans of that city, suffered under some cruel segregation laws (known as the "Jim Crow" laws). White passengers of the city buses, for example, were allotted the front seats in the bus; the black passengers were required to sit in the rear of the bus. Also, if there were more white passengers wanting to ride than there were seats available in the front, the black passengers were required to surrender their seats for the white riders. Those who disobeyed these laws were removed from the bus, arrested and fined. There was evidence in the higher courts, however, that times were about to change. In 1954, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education, that educational segregation was, in principle, illegal. This gave many civil rights leaders the courage to begin trying to extend the parameters of their freedom from oppression.
It was in this context that Rosa left work that evening, tired and wanting to get home. She took a seat directly behind the white section of the bus, where she was allowed to be, but the trouble began when the bus filled up and a white man demanded she get up and give him her seat. It was December 1, 1955. Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat to this man. She had been oppressed long enough; she would take no more! The bus driver demanded she give up her seat, but she would not budge. He stopped the bus, summoned the police, and she was arrested and jailed. She was tried and convicted of violating a local city ordinance and of disorderly conduct. She was fined $14. She stated later, "I only knew that, as I was being arrested, that it was the very last time that I would ever ride in humiliation of this kind." In 1992, in an interview, Rosa explained that many thought she refused to stand up for that white man because her feet were hurting. However, she stated, "the real reason of my not standing up was I felt that I had a right to be treated as any other passenger. We had endured that kind of treatment for too long."
A group of black citizens, outraged at the treatment of this 42 year old seamstress, assembled at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and founded the group known as the Montgomery Improvement Association. They were determined to clean up Montgomery, and they would begin by initiating a boycott of the bus company. They urged the black community, which was 70% of the bus company's business, to cease riding the buses until the company changed its policies. The young preacher of this Baptist church was elected the president of this group. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr. The boycott lasted for over a year, and turned out to be extremely successful. The case was finally taken before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the segregation of the Montgomery bus system was unconstitutional. It was desegregated on December 20, 1956.
This incident brought King to national prominence, and won the title for Parks of "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement." It also brought increased persecution to Rosa and her family. They suffered loss of jobs and harassment from the hostile white population. Thus, they decided to move in 1957 to Detroit, Michigan. Although they struggled for a while, Rosa finally found work with John Conyers, an African-American member of the U.S. House of Representatives. She worked as a receptionist for him, and then later as a staff assistant, a position she held for 25 years. She was also active in the NAACP and SCLC, as well as serving as a deaconess at the Saint Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church. She retired with distinction from her staff position with Rep. Conyers in 1988. Her autobiography -- Rosa Parks: My Story -- was published in 1992.
Rosa Parks was given numerous awards over the years for her service to freedom. In 1980 she was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize. In 1984 she was given the Eleanor Roosevelt Women of Courage Award. In 1996 she was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in July, 1999 she was awarded, by President Bill Clinton, the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the nation's highest civilian honors. She came to be in demand as a public speaker, and traveled extensively on behalf of civil liberties for all men. She died this past Monday evening in her home in Detroit, Michigan, with her close friends by her side, of natural causes. She was 92 years old.
In 1988, at a celebration given in her honor, Rosa made this statement, "I am leaving this legacy to all of you ... to bring peace, justice, equality, love and a fulfillment of what our lives should be. Without vision, the people will perish, and without courage and inspiration, dreams will die -- the dream of freedom and peace." This quiet, humble woman, by refusing to stand up that day almost fifty years ago, in fact stood up for all Americans. She has become the symbol and inspiration of all those who love liberty. May she rest in peace in the arms of a gracious and loving God. And may we all learn from her life that a single voice of courageous conviction can make a difference in the face of oppression and tyranny.
If you would like to be removed from or added to this
mailing list, contact me and I will immediately comply.
If you are challenged by these Reflections, then feel
free to send them on to others and encourage them
to write for a free subscription. These articles may all
be purchased on CD. Check the ARCHIVES for
details and past issues of these weekly Reflections: