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Remembering Rosa Parks

October 25, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: It was, in a way, the most simple act imaginable: Sitting down on a bus. But when Rosa Parks refused to stand to make room for a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, in December, 1955, the act and the woman became part of American history and a symbol of racial justice worldwide.

In the 1987 PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” Parks described what happened when the bus driver asked her to move:

ROSA PARKS: He said, “Y’all make it light on yourself and let me have those seats.”

And when the policeman approached me, one of them spoke and asked me if the driver had asked me to stand, and I said yes. He said, “Why don’t you stand up?” I said, “I don’t think I should have to stand up.” And I asked him, I said, “Why do you push us around?” He said, “I do not know, but the law is the law, and you’re under arrest.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Parks, then a 42-year-old seamstress, was convicted of violating segregation laws. The incident sparked a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery buses. It also helped launch the civil rights movement, and the work of a then-little-known 26-year-old Baptist minister, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: For several weeks now, we, the negro citizens of Montgomery have been involved in a nonviolent protest against the injustices which we have experienced on the buses for a number of years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Parks’ arrest was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 1956 overturned Alabama’s segregation laws.

Rosa Lee McCauley was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1913. A child of the Jim Crow South, she recalled watching her grandfather on guard against the Ku Klux Klan.

ROSA PARKS: I’d sit on the floor while he’d sit in his rocking chair with his gun nearby, just in case they came in.

JEFFREY BROWN: At 19, she married Raymond Parks, and the couple settled in Montgomery in 1933. She worked as a volunteer for the NAACP, and by the age of 40, was a well-known activist in the community.

ROSA PARKS: I am expected to be a first-class citizen. I want to be one. I have struggled hard.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even after her victory in the bussing case, Parks faced the loss of her job and continued death threats. She and her husband moved from Montgomery to Detroit in 1957.

ROSA PARKS: I’d like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free and wanted other people to be also free.

JEFFREY BROWN: As a symbol of the civil rights movement, she traveled and spoke often, including at the Million Man March in October 1995.

ROSA PARKS: And I will always work for human rights for all people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rosa Parks was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest civilian award.

Rosa Parks died last night in her sleep at her home in Detroit. She was 92 years old.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we’re joined now by two people who knew Rosa Parks and worked in the civil rights movement. Reverend Joseph Lowery helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King in 1957 and led the organization for 20 years. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton is the elected delegate for the District of Columbia. In the 1960s, she was a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a leading civil rights organization made up of students and young people. Welcome to both of you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Starting with you, Reverend Lowery — Montgomery, 1955, to help us understand the courage behind her act, what was life like for Rosa Parks and other black residents?

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: Well, it was strict segregation. The buses were particularly vicious in their policies. Black people would get on the front of the bus and if they were crowded, even if it was raining, they had to get back off the bus, go around to the back door, and get in, get wet, and it was especially humiliating to all the citizen of Montgomery.

So when Rosa Parks took the stand she did, she spoke for and acted for every citizen of Montgomery who had rid the bus or had a relative who rode the bus. It was segregation at its very worst.

JEFFREY BROWN: Congresswoman Norton, you were a young student at the time. What was it about this woman and this act that served as a catalyst for so much that came later?

DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Well, for those of us who were young and foolish, it seemed a quiet revolutionary act. We thought of it no less than that.

You will notice that it took students, though, another five years to get up the courage that Rosa Parks exhibited that day when she sat down. And yet, no one who participated in the civil rights movement will tell you anything but that there’s a straight line from Rosa Parks to what students later did.

I think of her — I am indebted to her, because I believe that this one act of courage is important in the history of the civil rights movement, because up until that time, the civil rights struggle was known more for famous men at the top — lawyers and others. After Rosa Parks, we saw the first mass movement for civil rights; we saw the first grassroots movement for civil rights, and that’s what was particularly intriguing to young people at the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Reverend Lowery, she was not the first person, I read today, who was arrested for deifying the segregation laws, but she became “the” test case. So you knew her at the time. What made her the right person for that moment in history?

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: Well, I think there are two reasons. One, I believe God chose Rosa Parks for this particular role in history. And, secondly, she was probably the most unlikely person.

When Martin called me, I was in Mobile at the time, pastoring a church and leading the movement there. And I was called and said the boycott was on, and it had been triggered by Rosa Parks.

And I said, “You mean Miss Parks who works with the NAACP?” And they said yes. She was such a quiet person. She was a gentle spirit that let loose a powerful force against racial injustice, and I think that factor alone inspired the people of Montgomery who nevertheless felt personally involved in the discrimination of the bus.

She was an unlikely person, but she became an instrument of the people’s will in that community who were tired. They said she was tired from working and perhaps she was — but she herself said later that she was spiritually tired and weary of being humiliated by being asked to move back so that a white person could occupy her seat.

It triggered the greatest revolution in American history in terms of nonviolent protest against against segregation and discrimination. And she became the symbol, the queen mother, of that movement.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Reverend Lowery, I read a quote today I found interesting by Reverend Ralph Abernathy, another — one of the chief organizers at the time of the boycott and he said, “We thought the boycott would last four days. We only wanted improved segregation. The people wanted it all.” So it somehow exploded.

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: When they called me — when I read in the paper in Mobile that what they asked for at the beginning was to begin at the back and fill it up and not have to get up, and whites could begin at the front, fill it up, and not have to get up, we already had that in Mobile.

And I said to Martin why don’t you ask first come, first served. He said don’t worry, they’re going to reject this simple offer, and it will help us mushroom the movement to demand an end to segregation. He was right.

And it sparked and triggered a self-determination movement. I think the Montgomery bus boycott initiated an era of self-determination, removed from that to Birmingham, where we no longer would accept segregation in public accommodations to Selma, where we asked Mr. Johnson, after the ’64 vote — Public Accommodation Act to deal with voting. He said, “Well, we just got through with one, we can’t.”

So we went to Selma, and in an act of self-determination, marched from Selma to Montgomery, wrote the Voting Rights Act, carried it back to the president and said please sign it. And he did on national television and proclaimed we shall overcome, all triggered by the act of this woman, this gentle spirit that leashed a tornado against racial injustice.

JEFFREY BROWN: So Congresswoman Norton, you had met her in later years. How did she handle this fame? Was it a burden on her? Did she feel a responsibility to keep fighting?

DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Well, amazingly, she’s the same person that she was — she was the same person that Reverend Lowery described, private person.

You know, in an era of peacock leaders, here was a woman who remained a little bird. I think of her as the bird that ruffled her feathers and started a revolution.

But that’s not what we’re accustomed to seeing. She was — she was, if you see the clips, she remained that way. For many of us, the priceless thing she gave us was the sense that you can free yourself.

JEFFREY BROWN: You as an individual, as part of a larger community.

DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: You as an individual, understand, here was I, on my way to law school, to be a civil rights lawyer like the great civil rights lawyers, and all of a sudden, here comes another message, that the average person can free themselves, and you know what, Eleanor; lawyers can’t free you. You’ve got to free yourself the way this woman did. And that has resonated with black America ever since.

JEFFREY BROWN: Reverend Lowery, we just have a minute, but I wanted to ask you, did she know how important she was?

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: Listen, it didn’t bother her. It didn’t faze her. She was totally undisturbed by it. Let me share this story quickly, that my youngest daughter, married some 20 some years ago, Mrs. Parks gave her a $25 check for a wedding gift.

A year later, she ran into Mrs. Parks somewhere, and Mrs. Parks fussed at her. She said, “Daddy, you called her a gentle spirit but she wasn’t gentle.” She said to me, “Young lady, why don’t you cash that check? I can’t get my bank account straight.” And my daughter said to her, “Mrs. Parks, I will never cash that check. It’s a treasure to me to have this from you.” Mrs. Parks didn’t understand it because she didn’t recognize her own place in history, and she left my daughter fussing, “Young lady, cash that check.” That was the humility that hallmarked the life and ministry of Rosa Parks.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright, Reverend Joseph Lowery and Eleanor Holmes Norton, thank you both so much.