Posted October 25, 2005 -- When Rosa Parks sat down for justice, she motivated lots of African-American people to stand up.
On a December day 50 years ago, Mrs. Rosa Parks would not yield her seat to a White passenger on a Montgomery, Ala., bus. Rumor had it that she was too tired to get up. But Dr. Dorothy Height, the 93-year-old President Emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women, said that Rosa Parks' exhaustion was more spiritual than physical.
“Rosa Parks always made it clear that she was not tired from her work. She was tired of a system that diminished Black folks,” Height said. “That’s why she sat down. That’s why she took a stand.”
In one pivotal moment, Rosa Parks galvanized the Civil Rights Movement, sparked a boycott that lasted for 381 days, put Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the map, and emboldened Black folks to engage in an economic boycott of the Montgomery bus system that had far-reaching social, economic and political consequences.
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Indeed, her actions had an immediate effect on her own economic circumstances. She and her husband both lost work over her courageous decision to stay seated on a bus that so codified oppression that people were required to pay their fare at the front of the bus, then exit and enter from the back.
After she refused to yield her seat, she and her husband, Raymond, had to leave Alabama; they eventually located in Detroit. She worked, for more than 20 yeas, as an aide to Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) who told NPR’s Ed Gordon that he wants to explore ways to commemorate the “mother of the civil rights movement” with some form of national action.
How do we, African Americans, memorialize Rosa Parks? What can we do in her spirit? She sat down because she was too tired to be oppressed, too tired to keep shuffling from the fare box at the front of the bus to the entrance at the back. She sat down because she chafed at the unfairness of a system that made her pay the same amount of money as the White person to whom she had to defer. She sat down because she was “sick and tired” (in the words of Fannie Lou Hamer) of being sick and tired of oppression.
Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said that she sat down so we could all stand up. Sitting or standing, where are the Black folks who are so tired of oppression that we will mirror her resolve?
Are we tired enough to stand up and speak up about the racial economic inequality that exists in our nation? Are we tired enough to stand up and speak up about the internal issues we must deal with – the Black-on-Black crime, the violence? Are we tired enough to sit down with each other and have an honest conversation about next steps for Black people? Are we tired enough to try different ways of healing our people?
Rosa Parks started us, 50 years ago, on a different path. She was not the first woman who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, nor was she the only woman who had been arrested. But she was the one who became a test case, the one whose actions “catapulted her into a leadership role in the Civil Rights Movement,” according to Conyers.
She wore her distinction with dignity and grace, with a sense of history that reflected the training she had at the Highlander School, the Tennessee education and research institution that had trained civil rights leaders and social activists since 1932. No wonder she managed to endure, with equanimity, her beating at the hands of an addict who stole $42 from her and later said he did not know who she was. No wonder she was repelled by the notion that rappers like OutKast would make light of her legacy. No wonder she founded an organization, the Raymond and Rosa Parks Foundation (www.rosaparks.org), which sponsors freedom rides and Underground Railroad explorations for young people.
Freedom, after all, was her mantra. In an interview with the Detroit Free Press a decade ago, she said, “I’m a person who always wanted to be free, and wanted it not only for myself; freedom is for all human beings.” She wanted to be free enough to sit down when social convention demanded she stand up. She wanted to be free enough to be firm in her human dignity when the law demanded that she bend. She wanted to be free enough to make her actions reflect the frustrated sentiments of a people who were simply tired of being oppressed.
In her memory, we all ought to ask ourselves how tired we are and what we are prepared to do about that tiredness. If we go along to get along, we violate the spirit of Rosa Parks. Her action in 1955 is a foundation and a mandate for our activism today.
Should the United States honor Rosa Parks with a national holiday, national memorial, or some other form of appreciation? Click "Discuss Now" to offer your suggestions.