A Birthday Celebration for Rosa Parks

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Celebrate with me the birthday of Rosa Parks! 

Born in Tuskegee, Alabama on February 4, 1913, she continues to be remembered in the hearts of the American people. What a “herstory” she lived! And how could I even begin to tell her story here? What we think we know about Rosa Parks, in fact, is more like a fairy tale than an accurate picture of the person she was and the powerful transformation she brought in the quest for racial justice.

Rosa Parks was not one to dwell on one event — one bus ride, one boycott, one street named after her — she instead set her “eyes on the prize” for the long haul. She was one persistent woman. She was a mentor to the young people who would ultimately see the prize of equal justice under the law. Rosa Parks was not just a woman to be remembered by holding down one seat on one bus on one day. Instead, she set her sights on the transformation of injustice and never stopped moving towards justice for all.

I cannot tell her story adequately, but I can point to some of her milestones . . .

In August of 1955, black teenager Emmett Till, visiting relatives in Mississippi, was brutally murdered after allegedly flirting with a white woman. Till’s two murderers had just been acquitted. Rosa Parks was deeply disturbed and angered by the verdict. Just four days after hearing the verdict, she took her famous stand on the Montgomery bus ride that cemented her place as a civil rights icon. She later said this when the driver ordered her to move, “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back.”

Rosa Parks sat in the black section, but when the white section filled up, the bus driver demanded that the four black passengers nearest the white section give up their seats. The other three black passengers reluctantly moved, but she did not. She recounted the scene: “When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ And he said, ‘Well, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to have to call the police and have you arrested.’ I said, ‘You may do that.’”

Many people have imagined Rosa Parks on that bus as an old woman tired after a long day of work. Yet, in her autobiography, My Story, Parks writes, “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” 

Rosa Parks endured significant hardships in her life, both during and after the boycott. She was unjustly fired from her department store job. She received an almost constant stream of death threats, so many that she eventually left Montgomery to seek work elsewhere, ultimately moving to Detroit. There she served as secretary and receptionist for Representative John Conyers, befriended Malcolm X, and became active in the Black Power movement.

In 1995, she published her memoir, Quiet Strength, focusing on her Christian faith.  She insisted that her abilities to love her enemies and stand up for her convictions were gifts from God: 

God has always given me the strength to say what is right. I had the strength of God, and my ancestors.

Rosa Parks died in 2005 at the age of 92 and she became the 31st person, the first woman, the second African American, and the second private citizen to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.

  • More than 50,000 people came through to pay their respects. 
  • Her birthday is celebrated as Rosa Parks Day in California and Missouri.
  • Ohio and Oregon celebrate the day on December 1, the anniversary of her arrest.

One last milestone of her remarkable story . . .

In 1994, the Ku Klux Klan applied to sponsor a section of Interstate 55 near St. Louis, Missouri, which would mean the Klan’s name would appear on roadside signs announcing the sponsorship. In 2001, the US Supreme Court ruled that the state of Missouri cannot discriminate against the Ku Klux Klan when it comes to groups that want to participate in the adopt-a-highway program. Of course, while the name of the Klan is aesthetically disgusting to many people, this decision was a victory for free speech and equal protection under the law, right?

54FF516B-B94C-4ADC-AF10-4BE8CF2BF64BIn the end, the Missouri Department of Transportation got sweet revenge! Sure, they couldn’t  remove the KKK’s adopt-the-highway sign, but few would dispute the state’s ability to name the highway itself. So the KKK is now cleaning up their adopted stretch of the highway named by the Missouri legislature and christened as “Rosa Parks Highway.”

Rosa Parks did not crave the spotlight. Nor did she care all that much about highways and byways bearing her name. She probably did want to be known as a person who persisted in the struggle for racial justice. She told us that in these words:

I would like to be known as a person who is concerned about freedom and equality and justice and prosperity for all people.

You are remembered as such a person, Mrs, Rosa Parks! Happy birthday in heaven. You are our inspiration. You are one of our sheros, our wonder woman!

I NEED YOU to join the fight for change!

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We are well into Black History Month, also called African American History Month.  We celebrate it every year in February. All manner of celebrations and commemorations happen during this month, from school plays, choral concerts, historical dramas to formal tributes and ceremonies in cities, colleges and churches. In the midst of this month, I have been contemplating the idea of white fragility drawing on the books, White Fragility by Robin DeAngelo and Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism by Alan Boesak and Curtiss Paul De Young. I highly recommend both books to you if you want to advocate for racial justice.

A dear and very wise friend of mine would exhort us to know the history of black people, but more importantly, to enter into serious conversations about equality and unity. She would tell white people to accept the reality that we will never completely understand her history and that we should be sure our conversations include deep listening. She would remind us that the history of injustice to black people has not ended yet and that we must all continue our work for justice and equality. I want to share with you some of the history behind this month.

As a Harvard-trained historian, Carter G. Woodson, like W. E. B. Du Bois before him, believed that truth could not be denied and that reason would prevail over prejudice. His hopes to raise awareness of African American’s contributions to civilization was realized when he and the organization he founded, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), conceived and announced Negro History Week in 1925.

The event was first celebrated during a week in February 1926 that encompassed the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The response was overwhelming: Black history clubs sprang up; teachers demanded materials to instruct their pupils; and progressive whites, not simply white scholars and philanthropists, stepped forward to endorse the effort.

The Black Awakening of the 1960s dramatically expanded the consciousness of African Americans about the importance of black history, and the Civil Rights movement focused Americans of all colors on the subject of the contributions of African Americans to our history and culture.

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Then the celebration was expanded to a month in 1976, the nation’s bicentennial. President Gerald R. Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” That year, fifty years after the first celebration, the association held the first African American History Month. By this time, the entire nation had come to recognize the importance of Black history in the drama of the American story

There is so much more I could include, but I will finish with some random thoughts my friend would like for us to know.

— The G.I. Bill of 1944 was denied to a million black veterans of WWII (history.com). These things matter. PUBLIC POLICY throughout American history has deliberately and purposefully limited economic opportunities and advancement of black people.

— It never occurred to me that some white people thought black history month DID NOT involve them.

— During this Black History Month, I ask: Do the white people within our networks remotely get how glorious AND exhausting it is being black in America? Can we talk about why it’s exhausting? Can you handle sitting in an uncomfortable space for awhile? Can you handle it? Can you take it in without deflection, pointing fingers, becoming defensive or proclaiming yourself the victim? Can we REALLY talk?

And finally her heartfelt words about a confrontation that happened in her city, in a neighborhood she knows well, to two people who are her friends.

My soul weeps. My body trembles. Anger and fear take turns occupying the same space. Why? Two people that I hold in high regard experienced the policing of their bodies in a PUBLIC space by white people who feel they get to decide where black people can and cannot be!

As I learned of what occurred I was immediately grateful their positions (elected official and one running for office AND a friend who STEPPED UP) along with their “training “ allowed them to walk away from this experience. Yes this was potentially a life and death event.

43274C05-47A6-49F7-979E-B91258D1809CSo many what if’s ran through my mind. If you are black you will understand what I mean. If you are white, I CHALLENGE you to discuss this LOCAL event with your WHITE friends! I NEED you to discuss it in YOUR churches. I NEED you to discuss with YOUR family.

I NEED YOU to join the fight for change! YOU play a KEY role in ensuring change happens.

I thank my friend for challenging me and encouraging me, not only during Black History Month, but throughout time — every day, every month and for years ahead. To black people, Black History Month begins on January 1st and ends December 31st, and the message of the month for black people has been lifelong. As for those of us who are white, let us not be shackled by “white fragility.” Instead let us move boldly — and with courage — into our communities and confront racism wherever we find it. It is true that racism and white supremacy have been a part of our history always, but we can end this tragic injustice with resolve, unity, faith, courage and the blessing of God who created all people in One image. May God make it so.