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Rosa Parks

Still Fighting for Racial Justice--From the Front of the Bus

April 19, 1998|Gayle Pollard Terry | Gayle Pollard Terry is an editorial writer for The Times. She interviewed Rosa Parks at the newspaper

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?

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