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SANDY BANKS / Life As We Live It

It's Good to Know Real Heroes Are Still Revered

April 20, 1998|SANDY BANKS

You would have thought I'd announced a meeting with one of the Spice Girls, from the reaction I got at home.

"I can't believe you get to meet her, in person."

"Please, please, Mom, can I go with you?"

And, to a friend, "You won't believe who my mom is taking us to meet!"

The object of their excitement wasn't a rock diva or movie star.

It was an elderly woman--hardly bigger than my oldest child--who rolled toward us in a wheelchair, climbed out carefully and adjusted her pillbox hat before extending a soft, brown hand to each of my daughters.

"So pleased to meet you," she said, asking each girl her name, gazing straight into their shining eyes. "I'm Mrs. Rosa Parks."

*

I don't recall that I even knew her name as a child, although she's known the world over now as the mother of the civil rights movement.

Martin Luther King Jr. was the reigning hero of the movement-in-progress when I was growing up in the '50s and '60s. But it is Rosa Parks who ignited the indignation of the masses 43 years ago with her simple act of defiance aboard a Montgomery, Ala., bus.

Then a middle-aged seamstress, Mrs. Parks was tired from eight hours on her feet when she boarded the bus that would take her home from work. Blacks were banned from the first four rows, so she settled in the middle section, which could be occupied by either whites or blacks.

But segregationist Jim Crow laws dictated that if a white passenger needed a seat, all the black people seated in those middle rows had to get up and move, so that no white person would have to sit next to a black passenger.

That day, though, as whites filled the bus, Mrs. Parks merely sighed, slid closer to the window to make room on her seat and told the driver, "I am not going to move."

Police were called, and Mrs. Parks was arrested. She was bailed out of jail by a local civil rights activist, who then enlisted a young minister--26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr.--to help organize a boycott of the city's bus line.

The yearlong boycott--which ended when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Montgomery's bus segregation laws were unconstitutional--garnered Mrs. Parks a place in history but cost her her job and forced her and her husband, Raymond, to move north to Detroit to rebuild their lives.

It also made her an international symbol of courage, whose influence reaches to the children of today.

*

I suppose we were too close to the moment when I was growing up to appreciate the import of what she did. History only becomes historic when you can stand back and view it through the prism of time.

It is different for my daughters--who learn about our struggle for civil rights as they celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday and study Black History Month in their mostly white schools.

And it is Rosa Parks who represents to them all that was good about that tumultuous period of our country's history--with an act so straightforward that even my first-grader can understand:

A tired woman on a bus, who simply decided not to get pushed around anymore; whose refusal to stand struck a blow for fairness and freedom, and spoke volumes about courage and righteousness and faith.

There is a majesty in that looming larger for my children than all they have learned about marches on Washington and Supreme Court decisions--mighty events, but beyond their grasp.

It's an overly simplistic view of history, I know--reducing it to one moment, one woman. But I don't mind.

It is enough to see my daughters glowing with pride, as I snap their photo standing next to this small, brave 85-year-old woman from their history books.

And to know that Puff Daddy, Leonardo DiCaprio and the Spice Girls have got to move over. They're about to be bumped by a new face on the bedroom wall.

* Sandy Banks' column is published Mondays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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