Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Sparking a Movement by Not Moving

Rosa Parks booked, December 1955

Rosa Louise McCauley Parks died yesterday at the age of 92. Back in 1955 she became the spark of a movement by not moving—not getting up from her bus seat and moving to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. Because of her refusal to move, she was arrested, tried, and convicted of disorderly conduct and violation of a Montgomery city ordinance. The following evening, a young Montgomery pastor name Martin Luther King, Jr., and about fifty leaders of the city’s Black community gathered to discuss how to respond to Rosa Parks’s arrest. The answer was what became the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which many historians identify as the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

I was nine years old in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of that bus to make extra room for whites. I had little understanding of segregation or the issues of racial justice. I didn’t realize that the neighborhood in which my family lived and the school I attended were segregated. I didn’t question why I had “my” church, which was made up of primarily German immigrants and their descendents, and Blacks had “their” church, which was somehow “different.” I didn’t catch on that the Black kids with whom I played when I visited my Aunt Lill were somehow “different” from me or that Aunt Lill calling them “Chocolate Drops” was pejorative and overtly racist.

However, shortly after Rosa Parks helped spark a movement by not moving I did know her name. I heard it on TV and I heard it on the lips of my relatives and the parents of my friends. I didn’t understand what was so bad about what she had done—or what was so good. I certainly didn’t understand how something that happened on a bus “way down south” in Alabama could be important in Louisville, Kentucky.

In the coming months and years I did begin to understand what all of the talk was about. I may not have realized that I was living in a unique time, but I did begin to comprehend what racial prejudice and injustice were all about. And in my pre-teen and teen years I formulated my own response to them. And somewhere through it all was the name “Rosa Parks,” because, for me at least, it began with her simply not moving.

This afternoon I had a conversation with some folks half my age about Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement. I was a bit surprised that they knew her name, even though they had no conception of the courage it must have taken for her not to get up out of her bus seat so a white man could sit down. But perhaps—just perhaps—after our conversation my younger friends had a better understanding about how it was “way back then” and I had a better cognition that we must continue to tell the stories of courageous folk like Rosa Parks or risk returning to the dark ages of that time.

Google’s Blog Search indicates 13,317 hits for “Rosa Parks.” I now make that 13,318.


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  3. I think her calm demeanor was a big help to the civil rights movement. She was a sympathetic figure in a way that a more confrontational person, Stokey Carmichael for example, would not have been.

  4. I agree with Thomas. She made a greater statement being level headed than had she thrown a fit.

    It's interesting to hear about living through that era. I wonder how, if at all, my own thought processes would be different had I grown up then rather than the 80's.

  5. Thomas: You’re so right! She was a sympathetic figure. More than that, she was an activist long before the bus seat incident.

    Sonson: I believe that who we are and how we think/react is greatly determined by our generation and what is happening around us. The greatest question I had for mself when I was studying the history and culture of Germany between WWI and WWII was: “If I were a young, unemployed German, would I have become a Nazi?” I suppose I might ask that question in a different light now that I have fairly well confirmed the existence of my Jewish ancestors.

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