Gilmore: Saluting Rosa Parks on her birth centennial
This week marks the 100th birthday of civil rights legend Rosa Parks. To celebrate the date, the U.S. Postal Service has issued a Rosa Parks stamp. It is a worthy honor for Mrs. Parks and a fitting tribute to one of the nation's greatest citizens.
In December 1955, Parks, who was born in Tuskegee, Ala., was living in Montgomery. She was working as a seamstress at a department store in a city that people called "The Cradle of the Confederacy." Montgomery was racially segregated to the core. On the city bus system, whites sat in the front of the bus; blacks sat in the back. If there were no seats for whites, blacks had to give up their seats and stand. It was a source of daily humiliation for the black citizens of Montgomery.
Parks was a passenger on a crowded Cleveland Avenue bus on Dec. 1, 1955, when she refused an order by a white bus driver to give her seat up to a white passenger who had entered the crowded bus. After being threatened with arrest, Parks refused again and was arrested. She was jailed and fined for violating Montgomery's segregation laws.
Her act of defiance set off the Montgomery bus boycott in December 1955. Blacks in Montgomery formed the Montgomery Improvement Association and decided once and for all that they would no longer ride the buses in Montgomery as long as they were racially segregated. Blacks either walked or were given rides by members of local civic groups.
The boycott stunned the whites of Montgomery and their city officials. The nearly 13-month boycott would eventually lead to desegregation of the city's public transit system, a major victory at that time. More important, the modern civil rights movement began that day, and a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. was propelled into the spotlight.
Rosa Parks was more than some historical accident. In fact, she prepared for her moment in history for years. Parks was serving as volunteer field secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in 1955. She also served on the Women's Political Council in the city, an organization that had been out front seeking equal rights for blacks.
In addition, Parks had attended the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn., where she trained under civil rights activist Septima Clark. Rosa Parks' famous act of protest did not come without personal sacrifice. She was declared a pariah in the city, lost her job as a seamstress, and received death threats. She eventually moved to Detroit, where she lived until her death on Oct. 24, 2005, at age 92.
Upon her death, Parks' coffin was placed in the U.S. Capitol rotunda for two days. More than 30,000 people paid their respects. National leaders spoke at her funeral, including then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton. Now called "the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement," Rosa Parks resisted such labels. She always said she was just trying to do what was right. She also said her act never had anything to do with being physically tired.
"The only tired I was," Parks remarked years later, was "tired of giving in." She was an extraordinary human being, and we're all in her debt.
Brian Gilmore is a writer for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.