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The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

RosaParksRosa Parks took her famous bus ride in 1955, when I was only five years old. Years later of course, I would hear of her briefly in history class. She was the tired little lady, quiet and demure who was “just too tired” to get up and go to the back of the bus.

Such is the legend.

Such is but the tip of the ice berg as they say.

Mrs. Parks had had a long and serious life before that day in Montgomery, and one that was filled with activism for civil rights. She had been a member of the NAACP for years, and had worked hard for it and other fledgling civil rights groups.

She toiled against injustice in her home state, meeting with people who would later become known to all the world, like Martin Luther King, Jr, and Ralph Abernathy.

She was by no means the first African-American to refuse to move on a bus, but she became the lightening rod for what would become the most famous boycotts in American history.

She was not physically tired, she was simply tired of being tired of being treating like a second-class citizen. She made her stand, and soon a city and then country rallied to her defense. She would have continued her activities in Montgomery but the hate calls and threats were unceasing for years afterward, and finally she moved with her husband and mother to Detroit, where other relatives already lived.

If Rosa expected things to be better, well they only were marginally so. Racism was not as overt as in Montgomery but there were “black” neighborhoods and white neighborhoods and lines were not crossed. There were restaurants like well-known seafood king, Joe Muers who had a separate dining area in the back for black customers. There were hotels that were not open to people of color.

Rosa continued her work for justice and civil rights in Detroit. She was everywhere and anywhere, often not speaking at events, but always supporting them. She especially supported young blacks who, spurred on by the efforts of Malcolm X who she greatly  admired, and of course the successes of Dr. King, were ready to challenge the white world and its defacto segregation policies.

Voting rights and Black history were dear to her heart.

I became enmeshed in Detroit’s Black professional world myself when as a young new attorney, I was hired at the Legal Aid and Defender Association of Detroit, then run by its founder Myzell Sowell. I worked there for nineteen years, and worked as colleagues with some of those that Mrs. Parks also worked with. She was instrumental in helping the elder George W. Crockett, Jr. become elected to the Recorder’s Court, a man whom I had the distinct privilege to practice in front of. I was also blessed with a number of years of working side by side with his son George III.

I found the chapters dealing with Mrs. Parks work in Detroit most interesting to me for that reason alone. I knew these people, sometimes just as mere acquaintances, but nonetheless they were part of my “education” into politics in Detroit and the birthplace of many African-Americans who went on to be leaders around the nation.

The smart ones, knew that Mrs. Parks was a major inspiration to them. She was not a shy and retiring person, although she was quiet. She had strong opinions, she stated them, and she supported causes that seemed right to her, regardless of the dangers (which at times were very real), or what it might cost her.

Like all great heroes, there is a tendency, which the author Jeanne Theoharis explores wonderfully, to take legitimate heroes and then remake them to suit the needs of the day. Mrs. Parks was used in this way, again and again. She became the symbol at one point, of the “way” to go about civil rights–peacefully. She herself was much more of a militant and her allegiances were more closely aligned to the more radical branches of the Black Movement. She was the juxtaposition to the “angry” young black man. Here’s was the “right” approach.

At her death, Mrs. Parks passing was used by some to attempt to herald the “end of racism” in America. Nobody knew better than Rosa Parks that the evil of racism is systemic in America, and is simply more underground that it used to be.

This is simply an excellent treatment of the real life of certainly one of the most important women in our time. The fact that squabbles over her papers leaves a huge cache of them in the hands of an auction house, is a crime. Nobody has even seen the contents, and they are warehoused apparently available to a suitable buyer. Some of her papers were given to WSU, and it is from these that Ms. Theoharis constructed her “history” of Rosa’s life. Of course, those who worked with Mrs. Parks who are still alive, were most useful as well in telling the inside story of this heroic woman’s extraordinary life.

If you want to understand the civil rights movement in this country, this is a necessary part of that education.

 

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