ROSA PARKS. 1913 - 2005
A Legend’s Soul is Rested.
By: Ellis Cose
F OR MOST OF AMERICA, SHE WAS NOT QUITE REAL
MORE AN ICON THAN A FULL-FLEDGED HUMAN BEING.
AND ROSA PARKS UNDERSTOOD THAT BETTER THAN ANYONE.
“I understand I am a symbol.” Parks wrote in 1992. She died last Monday at the age of 92; hut she ascended to the realm of legend long ago. A weary seamstress on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 refused to stand so a white man could sit, ushering in the age of equality. So goes the “children’s version of the civil-rights movement’ in the words of author Diane McWhorter. The complete story is consid-erably less child friendly. It would include at least a reference to Thomas Edward Brooks, a 21-year-old black soldier who got on a Montgomery bus in 1950. Brooks made the mistake of entering through the front door instead of the back. For that, as authors Donnie Williams and Wayne Greenhaw relate in “The Thunder of Angels,” a policeman bashed him on the head with a billy club and shot him dead. At least two other black men were similarly killed in the years leading up to Parks’s act of civil disobedience. Parks’s quiet protest coincided with the NAACP’s search for the perfect test case. Her courage lcd to the creation of the Montgomery Improvement Association, headed by Martin Luther King Jr., chosen in part because he was an outsider and thereby less subject to major reprisals. The Montgomery Bus Boycott made history—and heroes out of both King and Parks. But the fame did not lead to fortune.
She and her husband lost their jobs and moved to Detroit, where they struggled financially. “I always thought it was a mistake for them [the black leadership] to let her leave Montgomery. I always thought Rosa Parks should have left this earth from the city she loved most and helped to make sacred said the Rev. Fred Shuttles-worth, another civil rights icon.
In 1964, Parks endorsed a young Detroit lawyer for Congress. And after John Con-yers won, he hired her as a receptionist and assistant. “I didn’t do it out of sympathy for her said Conyers. She was a Living connection to the civil-rights movement who happened to add a hit of celebrity cachet to the place. “People came to my office to see her,” Conyers recalled, and they invariably left impressed with her humility and grace. “She was one of the most approachable heroes you could ever encounter.” said Betty DcRamus, a columnist for ‘The Detroit News. Parks retired in 1988 and stayed largely out of the public eye until 1994, when she was attacked in her home and robbed by a crack user. Following that assault, fellow Detroiters saw to it that she was moved to a high rise on the Detroit River.
In the twilight of her life, Parks struggled with a range of woes, including poor health and dementia. She never ceased being a symbol of the epic battle for human rights; and she never claimed victory in the larger war. “I try to keep hope alive, but that’s not always the easiest thing to do’ she wrote in 1992. As The Detroit News observed after her death, her adopted home “is today the most segregated metropolitan area in the nation?’ And segregation remains a fundamental Amencan reality.
In the newly published “The Shame of the Nation,” Jonathan Kozol sheds a book’s length of tears over segregation in schools. He cites research that shows segregation is worsening and notes that three fourths of black and Latino children attend schools with no or relatively few whites. It is a daunting task to convince poor, minority kids they can learn “when they are cordoned off by a society that isn’t sure they really can,” writes Kozol.
In their study of the Montgomery boycott, authors Williams and Greenhaw quote a white woman who, as a 13-year-old, witnessed the murder of the black soldier on the bus. The world has forgotten, she said, “about the white children who grew up in that society. They forgot that we suffered, too. I had nightmares for years, and I still can’t get it off my mind sometimes.
It’s easy looking hack some 50 years to see the insanity of the old Southern system. It is much more difficult to see (or become outraged about) the harm in today’s softer form of segregation. For despite the damage it may do psychologically, economically, and to the social fabric of our collective community, it doesn’t generally leave dead bodies sprawled on the ground. But it’s far from the brother-hood Rosa Parks dreamed of and spent her life trying to create.
November 7. 2005. (Pg.53)
Church of the Science of God
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