A few days ago my mother had a brief conversation with a woman at the Post Exchange at Fort Dix, in New Jersey. It was one of those bits of passing small talk you have with strangers while standing in line to check out. The woman had the misconception that Rosa Parks was no longer living. My mother, who is as informed about American history as about that of her own native Germany, quickly told her that Rosa Parks was indeed alive, and was downright huffy that any American citizen wouldn’t know that.
Mom told me this story yesterday evening, her voice filled with the same bewildered dismay that must have been present when she schooled the stranger in the PX. She does not watch very much television, so she could not have known that Rosa Parks had just died, or was dying perhaps even as we spoke. For my own part, I always try to avoid the news after 5 p.m. I figure that if there’s anything more intense and catastrophic than what’s already happening, somebody will make it their business to tell me. So I didn’t find out until this morning. It was like a soft punch to the heart, hearing the news.
As most Americans know, Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, for not giving up a her seat to a white man on a crowded, segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She had to submit to being fingerprinted and having mug shots taken. You may have seen them. There’s no smugness to them, unlike some I’ve seen lately. She is dignified and calm in appearance. She was being arrested for doing the right thing.
I think I would have been too afraid to try anything like what Mrs. Parks did back then; I believe I am too much of a coward to do anything like that even today, and even for the right reasons. Rosa Parks was 42 years old, one year younger than I am, no impulsive young woman. She was a seamstress and housewife, but she was not some meek little lady who just decided one day that she had had enough. She had known the score for a long time. Her husband, Raymond Parks, a barber, had been active in the National Committee to Defend the Scottsboro Boys, eight black youths unjustly convicted of raping two white women. She had been turned away twice when she tried to register to vote, finally succeeding in 1945. She was an adviser to the NAACP youth council, and the secretary to her local NAACP. She attended a school-integration workshop at the Highlander Folk School (now the Highlander Research and Education Center) in Monteagle, Tennessee. The school was known for training civil rights activists.
She even had had a tussle with the same bus driver, James Blake, in 1943, 12 years before the incident that would spark a full-on war for civil rights. Blake had gone apoplectic because Mrs. Parks had refused to pay her fare at the front door and then get off of to enter through the back, as was the custom in Montgomery at the time. She was no more or less afflicted by that vicious brand of openly practiced race prejudice than other blacks and minorities were in the South (and for that matter, in some other parts of the United States too). She almost didn’t get on the bus when she saw Blake was driving it. But this time she had had enough. And in many ways she was prepared for the fight that would come.
And it came. The NAACP had been looking for a case like hers to test in court. Members first thought that 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, who had been arrested on the same charge eight months earlier, would be a good subject, but the girl got pregnant, and her mother and the NAACP decided she couldn’t get on the stand (with good reason, because she would likely have been pilloried by the prosecution). Another woman, Mary Louise Smith, was arrested, but it was decided she couldn’t withstand media scrutiny. Mrs. Parks knew about both women, because as secretary of the Montgomery NAACP she had attended the meetings where these decisions were made. A white lawyer named Clifford Durr, who along with his wife Virginia is among the bravest people in civil rights history for reasons I may blog about someday, bailed Mrs. Parks out. Her case went to trial. She was convicted of disorderly conduct and violating a local ordinance. A young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., then led a boycott of the Montgomery buses that crippled the city. Less than a year later, in November 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation on transportation in any city was unconstitutional.
According to the historian and author Douglas Brinkley, who wrote a crisp and concise biography of Rosa Parks, James Blake, the bus driver, remained unrepentant. Brinkley interviewed him for the book, and Blake used all kinds of foul language when Mrs. Parks’s name was mentioned. He died of a heart attack in 2002, at the age of 89. His story presents an argument for why we should continue to prosecute people who got away with violating the civil rights of others way back when, no matter how old and weak they are. They’re not too weak to keep spewing their bile and hatred. My one consolation is that Mrs. Parks outlived him.
Mrs. Parks moved in 1957 to Detroit, where she stayed active in the civil rights movement, and served on the staff of U.S. Representative John Conyers (D., Mich.) from 1965 until 1988. In 1987 she founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, an organization that provides scholarships and guidance for young blacks. Her death was a punch to the heart for me, because she had the kind of integrity and unimpeachable character, the kind of courage and backbone, you almost never see in public figures today. As long as she was alive I could point to her as someone who had the right stuff. But at 92 she lived as long as she could. Rather than mourning her, though, perhaps in her honor I will straighten my back and try to gain just a little of her courage myself.