Illustration by Earl Holloway
Today is the 60th Anniversary of the day Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. We remember her pivotal role in the civil rights movement and celebrate her life of activism and bravery with this piece by Rep. John Conyers Jr. for our December 2005 issue.
America has lost a living legend. And I, along with countless others, have lost a friend. Rosa Parks passed away peacefully at her home on the night of October 24 at the age of ninety-two. We all knew that Mrs. Parks was frail. We always feared this moment. And now it is here. The extent to which she will be missed cannot be dignified with words.
She and her husband moved to Detroit in 1957, and we bonded right away. She supported me in my 1964 run for the House, and to this day I believe she made the difference in my being elected to Congress. The very first person I asked to join me in the Congressional office was Rosa Parks. And she accepted, working for me as my administrative assistant for the next twenty years until her retirement. I had the privilege of being able to call her my colleague, as well as my friend.
Mrs. Parks will endure in my memory as an almost saint-like person. And I use that term with care. She was very humble and soft-spoken, but inside she had a determination that was quite fierce. You treated her with deference because she was so quiet, so serene.
Never once did I ever hear her raise her voice in anger. Never once did I ever hear her make negative or unkind remarks about anybody.
She didn’t even blame the department store for firing her after the bus boycott got under way. “A month after the boycott began, I lost my $25-a-week job when the Montgomery Fair department store closed its tailor shop,” she wrote. “I was given no indication from the store that my boycott activities were the reason I lost my job. People always wanted to say it was because of my involvement in the boycott. I cannot say this is true. I do not like to form in my mind something I do not have any proof of.’’
Rosa Parks led by example. Hers was not the loudest voice or the most forceful. She did not create change by arrogance or violence. And while she was an apostle of the nonviolence movement, Mrs. Parks never saw herself that way. She never sought the limelight and was never really a political figure at all. But it was important to her that people understood the government, understood their rights, and understood the Constitution that we are still trying to perfect today.
She showed that one citizen’s voice—a soft and determined voice— can be heard, saying simply: “Love justice and despise oppression.”
This woman, quiet, dignified, always pleasantly composed, was able to change the way that America operates.
The power of her ideas was not constrained by continents or oceans. As the mother of the new civil rights movement, she left an impact on the entire world.
Nelson Mandela, after his release from prison, visited Detroit. When he got off the plane, politicians, businessmen, and other dignitaries waited to greet him. The one person he recognized was Rosa, and he began to chant, “Rosa Parks, Rosa Parks.”
As we remember and say goodbye to Rosa Parks, let us consider the struggles for justice in the United States today. Too often we see that people of color, and people who are poor, are left behind and ignored, as Hurricane Katrina illustrated. While this is no longer the era in which African Americans are subjected to water hoses, attack dogs, and billy clubs, this is the era in which one in nine African Americans cannot find a job, one out of five African Americans is uninsured, and one out of four African Americans is living in poverty. This is the era in which close to half of all African American students—44 percent—leave high school without a diploma.
And today, the Iraq War raises the question: Will the United States be a democracy or an empire? Rosa Parks was for democracy.
There will only ever be one Rosa Parks. For her courage, she received the Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the honor of being the first woman to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. She taught us how to struggle and how to triumph.
May we all aspire to emulate her— to be strong and humble voices for justice.