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?
In 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!