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Rosa Parks


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HEROINE OF CIVIL RIGHTS: ROSA PARKS: 1913-2005: A legend with a quiet manner

Alabama native put life at risk for cause


Almost everything that she had done in her life prepared Rosa Parks for her role as the American who would challenge and ultimately help defeat notorious Jim Crow segregation laws and change the course of history.

Earlier events had closely paralleled her historic stand in 1955.

In 1943, Parks, then a 30-year-old seamstress and newly elected secretary of the local branch of the NAACP, was forced off a Montgomery bus.

At the time, it was customary for blacks to enter the front of the bus to pay their fare, then get off and re-enter at the rear. But on this day, Parks refused. The driver ordered her off the bus and drove away. Parks walked home in the rain.

"I was just trying to let them know how I felt about being treated as a human being," Parks would later recall.

Parks got off the bus that day in 1943. But 12 years later, when faced with a similar situation, Parks didn't budge. And her singular act of defiance set off one of America's greatest and most significant social movements.

Parks, 92, known as the mother of the civil rights movement, died at her Detroit home Monday of natural causes.

"The queen mother of the movement has passed from earth to glory," said the Rev. Joseph Lowery on Monday night. "She sat down with dignity rather than get up and move back in humiliation so that her people could stand up in courage," said Lowery, a co-founder and president emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

In the annals of American history, Parks looms as a major figure. She was born into a world in 1913 where she was expected to be deferential, and spent her last days in the midst of a legal battle over the use of her name in a song that metaphorically linked the music industry with oppression.

A case that grew

On a cold Thursday afternoon, Parks left work at the Montgomery Fair Department Store, where she was a seamstress, and bought a few items at a nearby drugstore. Waiting at a bus stop, she passed up one bus because it was too crowded, and took another.

She and three other black people sat in "no man's land," a middle section of the bus where black people were allowed to sit if no white person came to sit there.

At a stop, a few white people boarded, and a white man was left standing. The driver, James Blake, turned around and addressed Parks and the other three. "Y'all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats," Blake is reported to have said.

According to the 1992 autobiography, "Rosa Parks, My Story," the man sitting next to her by the window stood up. The other two black women also complied. Parks wouldn't budge.

"I'm going to have you arrested," Blake told Parks.

"You may do that," Parks said quietly.

Blake left the bus and returned with two police officers, who asked Parks why she hadn't gotten up.

"Why do you all push us around?" Parks asked the officers.

"I don't know," said one of the officers. "But the law is the law, and you're under arrest."

From the police station, Parks called E.D. Nixon, president of the Montgomery NAACP. Nixon couldn't reach black lawyer Fred D. Gray, who was out of town, and phoned white lawyer Clifford Durr.

Durr phoned a desk sergeant and was told that Parks had been arrested for "failing to obey the order of bus driver."

Durr then phoned Nixon and advised him that Gray should argue the case on the grounds that a state law requiring segregation on city buses was unconstitutional.

Durr said Gray should ignore a city ordinance permitting any person, white or black, to retain a seat when a bus was filled, and requiring any new rider under those circumstances to stand. Under that ordinance, Parks had acted within the law, but a defense based on that fact would not have provided a test case for U.S. bus segregation laws.

Durr's advice would prove to be critical. Nixon paid Parks' $50 bail.

By that Friday, the Women's Political Council, a local action group of college-trained professionals on the faculty at Alabama State College and led by Jo Ann Robinson, learned of Parks' arrest and began meeting secretly at the school, mimeographing leaflets calling for a citywide bus boycott. Over the next two days, the leaflets were distributed to black churches around the city, and the Montgomery Advertiser headlined the story, "Negro Groups Ready Boycott of Bus Lines."

Black leaders in Montgomery had been looking for an opportunity to challenge bus segregation and Nixon and Durr asked Parks to be a test case.

She agreed, over her husband's protests.

"Rosa, the white folks will kill you," he said, but he later supported her actions.

The following Monday, Parks was found guilty in Recorder's Court. She was fined $10 and court costs of $4.

That night at a mass meeting at Montgomery's Holt Street Baptist Church, the Montgomery Improvement Association was formed to wage a boycott. The new minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, 26-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., was elected president and delivered a stirring speech.

"Just the other day, just last Thursday to be exact, one of the finest citizens in Montgomery --- not one of the finest Negro citizens, but one of the finest citizens in Montgomery was taken from a bus and carried to jail and arrested because she refused to get up to give her seat to a white person," King said, in calling for the boycott. The next day, almost empty buses coursed through the streets of Montgomery.

The leaders of the MIA met with Mayor W.A. Gayle and other city commissioners a week after Parks' arrest. That neither she nor they ever intended a historic protest is apparent from the modest initial demands of the MIA. It was only after racial tensions escalated during the boycott and King's Montgomery home was bombed Jan. 30 that the MIA took stronger action.

Gray filed a landmark suit on Jan. 31 alleging that Alabama bus segregation was unconstitutional in light of the Supreme Court's Brown decision. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York headed by Thurgood Marshall provided funds for the legal challenge.

In February 1956, Parks, King and 86 other Montgomery blacks were indicted under an old law forbidding boycotting "without just cause or excuse." A picture of Parks being fingerprinted that day ran on the front page of the New York Times. The 89 were tried in March, and King alone was convicted and sentenced to pay $500; he never paid it, successfully appealing his conviction.

During the long boycott, Parks served on the executive board of the Montgomery Improvement Association and worked as a dispatcher of vehicles sent to pick up boycotting blacks. In one of the watershed events of U.S. civil rights law, the majority of a three-judge federal panel sitting in Montgomery declared Alabama bus segregation unconstitutional on June 5, saying bus segregation violated the 14th Amendment.

The high court upheld the three-judge panel's ruling Nov. 13. Formal notification of the court's action reached Montgomery, where blacks rejoiced, on Dec. 20. The boycott lasted 381 days.

King and five others, not including Parks, rode the city's first integrated bus. Later that day, after making breakfast for her mother, Parks was driven downtown where she boarded two buses and posed for photos for Life magazine.

A low profile for years

In August 1957, nine months after the boycott ended yet fearing for her life, Parks and her husband moved to Detroit, where her brother lived.

Raymond Parks got a job as an instructor and maintenance man at a Detroit barbe

Published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Oct. 25, 2005
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