(Sculpture by Ed Dwight of Rosa Parks in downtown Grand Rapids Michigan)
It was 55 years ago this week that Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama. This monument to her stands in Rosa Parks Circle in Grand Rapids, Michigan.* Parks wasn’t the first to refuse to give up her seat, but she was the one chosen by the African-American leaders in Montgomery for the lawsuit test case. The bus boycott may or may not have been spontaneous but it lasted 381 days and became a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. At the time, Parks was working as a secretary at the local branch of the NAACP.
Some claim both events were entirely spontaneous and deny any advance planning, and others vociferously argue otherwise. Those who question the accuracy of the spontaneity claim are usually shouted down with accusations of racism in diminishing what took place. And no mention is ever made of the earlier women who “sat down” for their rights. Their names are not remembered.
Regardless of the ultimate truth, nothing can take away from Parks’ courage in refusing to give up her seat. Just a few months before this incident, 14 year old Emmett Till was brutally mutilated and murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman (his killers were later acquitted). Parks knew she would be arrested and she was. She was bailed out later that night and ended up becoming a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement.
For all of the accolades received in her lifetime, Rosa Park’s life was anything but easy. Employment became difficult for her and her husband in Alabama (Parks was fired after her arrest). They moved to Virginia in 1957 and later to Detroit, Michigan. Parks worked as a seamstress, until she was hired by U.S. Representative John Conyers as a secretary/receptionist in 1965. She remained in that position until 1988.
Parks continued to work tirelessly for Civil Rights, donating time and money consistently throughout her later years. The nation was treated to a sorry spectacle during the last years of her life when a lawsuit was filed on her behalf against a hip-hop group who referenced “moving to the back of the bus” in a song. Relatives decried the action and claimed they were kept from seeing Parks. They also claimed she was not aware of what was taking place. Her longtime friend and caretaker proceeded with the suit that ended up being settled. Parks passed away in 2005. She had no children but left a meaningful legacy to the world of how one person can make a difference.
“I am leaving this legacy to all of you...to bring peace, justice, equality, love, and fulfillment of what our lives should be. Without vision, the people will perish, and without courage and inspiration, dreams will die - the dream of freedom and peace.”
*The sculptor, Ed Dwight, has an interesting story of his own. Back in 1962, when he was an air force jet pilot, President Kennedy nominated him as an astronaut trainee, making Dwight the first African-American ever appointed. When Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Dwight was forced out of the program and eventually became a sculptor.
When I first saw this work, I questioned why she was standing up instead of sitting down. But Dwight's thought was to show Parks as emerging from her seat, becoming the quiet leader that she was. I suppose we could also say she was standing up for "the dream of freedom and peace." May we all show as much courage today.