Rosa Parks doesn’t look like a fighter. She is 85, delicate, slight and extremely soft-spoken when she chooses to speak--which is rare. She moves slowly, sometimes with the aid of a wheelchair. But in her quiet way she continues the fight she started on a December evening in 1955, when she refused to give her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala.
She travels the nation, lending her name and sometimes her appearance to the campaigns to stop the rollback of affirmative action. She participated in Jesse Jackson’s “Save the Dream” march near the Coliseum on a cold, rainy February day that discouraged many from attending. She also addressed the Million Man March, and opposed Proposition 209.
The daughter of a schoolteacher, she remains deeply committed to education and programs for youth. In Detroit, her hometown since soon after the boycott, her Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute sponsors national programs for students such as “Pathways to Freedom,” a tour of stops on the Underground Railroad. The institute has applied to open a charter school there and is planning to start one in Los Angeles.
For the past seven years, she has wintered in Southern California, as a guest of Leo Branton Jr., a prominent civil rights attorney who represented Angela Davis, Nat King Cole and other high-profile clients. The mother of the civil rights movement is no ordinary tourist. She has a message for Hollywood: Integrate the movies.
At the Academy Awards, she was photographed with Spike Lee and Dustin Hoffman, and drew a crowd of stars who seemed humbled by the small woman whose act of courage launched the modern civil rights movement and catapulted a young minister, Martin Luther King Jr., to international attention.
On that fateful evening when she rode home from her job as a tailor’s assistant in a downtown department store, she sat in the first row of seats reserved for colored passengers. When the bus filled up with white passengers, who were coming out of the Empire movie theater, the driver ordered her and three black passengers to move to the back. She did not budge--not because she was tired, as the story went, but because she did not believe she should have to move. Her arrest led to a black boycott of the public buses that lasted for more than a year, until the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the Alabama laws segregating public buses.
A year after the boycott ended, she and her husband, Raymond Parks, a barber and veteran civil rights activist, moved north, where she worked for U. S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). But Detroit no longer seemed like the Promised Land in 1994, when she was attacked in a robbery at her home. The crime did not shake her faith: She is a member of the St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she serves as a deaconess. Today, she will be honored in Los Angeles at First AME in West Adams.
Retired and widowed, she enjoys music--blues, jazz, classical and religious. She loves professional basketball and roots for the Detroit Pistons and the Lakers, as long as the two are not playing each other. Next week, she plans to return to Montgomery for the April 22 groundbreaking of the Rosa Parks Museum and Library at Troy State University--on the very site where she was arrested.
Question: May we start with history? You were not sitting in seats reserved for whites?
Answer: The seating was not in front of the bus, but it was in the back of the white people where we were sitting. There was a [black] man who was already on the seat, I remember, and I sat with him. Then there were two [black] women across the aisle from us. We went on about two or three stops sitting as we were. However, the front of the bus did fill up and this white man stood up. When the driver saw him standing up, he wanted the four of us to stand up so this [white] man could have a seat. The other three [black] people did stand up, somewhat reluctantly. I remained seated where I was. The driver wanted to know if I was going to stand up. I said, “No, I’m not.” He said, if I don’t stand up, he would have me arrested. He did have two policemen come on and arrest me, and take me to jail.
Q: Why did you remain seated?
A: I remained seated because that was where I was sitting. I didn’t see why I should have to stand up for a person to sit down. However, the [white] man who was standing, the passenger, didn’t say anything at all. He was willing to stand up just like he was. But it was the driver who wanted the four of us [black passengers] to stand up. That meant there wouldn’t be any seats for anybody to sit where we were supposed to sit. We were not in the white section. We were in the colored section.
Q: Weren’t you afraid?
A: No, I wasn’t. When he told me he was going to have me arrested, I told him, “Well, you can do that.” So he did have the two policemen come on and escort me off of the bus to their squad car.
Q: You were a member of the NAACP?
A: I’ve been a member since 1943. I was secretary most of that time. I also was the advisor to the youth council at the time I was arrested.
The young people had planned to go to the library. It was only for the white people. If an African American wanted a book, [the white library] would have to take it across town, to a house that served as the colored people’s library. The youth were really trying their best to break down the old segregated ways of doing things . . . . I was training them the proper way to integrate public facilities . . . . I was telling them how to act if they were arrested. But I happened to be the one who was arrested.
Q: What is your fondest memory of Dr. King?
A: The time when I first met him was in August of 1955. I was secretary of the NAACP at that time. He was invited to speak to us. I was very impressed, first of all, by the fact he was very young. He was only about 26 years old. When I first saw him there, when he came into the room, I thought perhaps he was just visiting--until the deacon of his church introduced him. When I heard him speak, I was impressed by the fact that he was very friendly and very impressed by the speech he made. That was my first time actually meeting him.
Q: You got to know Dr. King during the boycott?
A: He was very concerned about what was going on. I didn’t have to stay in jail but just a couple of hours. Some friends came and had me released. After I had been arrested, the people of Montgomery were willing to stay off the buses until conditions were better than they were at that time.
I was very glad that Dr. King was there, because he was a person whom people really gravitated to because of his manner, and his way of treating people. The people there were in love with Dr. Martin Luther King. We all were glad he was there to give the people the leadership that was needed at that time.
Q: During the boycott, black people made sacrifices--
A: They walked to work. They started carpools. People who had cars would give people rides, too. It was a long, drawn-out thing because we stayed off the buses for 381 days. We didn’t ride the buses anymore until the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregated seating was unconstitutional.
Q: What can young people do today?
A: People, today, even though the nation is not segregated, could . . . help other people and be treating people as they should be [treated]. And, people should not have prejudiced attitudes. Prejudice is the worst thing you can have against another person--regardless of race or creed.
Q: You strongly support affirmative action, and opposed Proposition 209?
A: Yes . . . . If more people voted, we might not be in this place at this time. Many people made sacrifices to try to vote. There were long years of waiting. I tried three times to register to vote before I voted.
Q: Has there been a setback in progress?
A: Yes. Affirmative action did not reach its goal of equal opportunity for all. Now, it is gone.
Q: Is it again growing harder for African Americans to succeed?
A: It is harder for blacks to achieve but not impossible. That is why the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development is training youth to contribute from a knowledge standpoint and to communicate with people of all cultures.
Q: Many of your projects are directed toward youth.
A: Elaine [Steele, her assistant] and I co-founded the institute. I wanted my husband’s name in the institute because, as far back as I knew, he was interested in freedom and equality for all people. He was trying very hard to get our people to try to register to vote and things like that. He was really more concerned about our progress as a people than being somebody who was only concerned with social activities.
Q: Did your husband get you involved in civil rights activities and the NAACP?
A: He was a member of the NAACP long before I was. He seemed to have been very active with them, even though there were very few people who had the courage to join this organization. Many of our people were somewhat afraid they would be harmed in some way if they wanted to register to vote, or if they joined the NAACP. It was dangerous.
Q: Is the NAACP still needed today?
A: We still do need the NAACP. I am a life member . . . . I’ve known Julian Bond, [the new chairman] since he was quite young, and admired him.
Q: You attended the Academy Awards. What is the last movie you saw?
A: “Amistad.” Steven Spielberg and Debbie Allen invited me to the premiere in Washington . . . . I would like to see more pictures with African Americans than we have now.
Q: You often meet with students. What do they ask you?
A: Most ask me about my growing up in the South, and how conditions were. I always tell them how different it was. They have more freedom than we did in the South.
Q: Tell me about the one-room school you attended?
A: My mother was a teacher . . . . It was a one-teacher school. One teacher had to teach all of them, from the beginning to about the sixth grade. My mother was pretty strict about discipline in her school. It was quite interesting to see. She was a very frail-looking lady, very small. But she would have those switches that she would use if they got out of hand . . . .
She enjoyed teaching, even though it was very poor pay, and they didn’t actually have a schoolhouse. Most times, they would have to teach school in a church. They didn’t have any little school buildings. It wouldn’t have any glass windows, and there was a wood stove. It was pretty rough. But still a lot of people went to school if they could, and they would try their best to get their lessons.
Q: Look at what was accomplished then. You attended school in one room, six grades, no glass in the windows and look how you learned. So, today, why aren’t some black children learning in schools that have windows, modern books?
A: Is it the teachers? Some teachers may be a little too lenient with them.
Q: Why do you want to start a charter school?
A: If we can have a school that would give the students an interest in learning, that would be very good . . . . We want those who walk in to be interested in learning because if they are not willing to learn, then they can’t be taught very well.
Q: You have fought for integration all your life, but since passage of Proposition 209, many black students want to attend Morehouse, Spelman, Howard and other historically black colleges. Do you approve?
A: At black colleges, they can be mindful of the fact that we do have very good black institutions.
Q: You have seen a lot in your life--
A: I have seen a lot of progress in my life. I was very young. I am always looking forward for more progress in the future for all of us as citizens. I am always concerned about people getting registered to vote, voting for the right person and running for office--to continue to be the kind of citizens who would make this country what it should be for all people.