Recalling the Life of Rosa Parks

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Ed Gordon talks with Claiborne Carson, professor of history and director of the King Institute at Stanford University, and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), about the life and legacy of civil rights icon Rosa Parks.

ED GORDON, host:

We're now joined by a number of people to look at the life and legacy of Mrs. Rosa Parks. First up, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, longtime civil rights veteran and colleague and friend of Mrs. Parks. He joins us today from Johannesburg, South Africa.

Reverend, talk to me about the importance of this woman historically in the movement.

Reverend JESSE JACKSON (Rainbow/PUSH Coalition): Well, you know, ironically I'm in South Africa about to meet the president, Nelson Mandela. You think about it, the impact of Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Mandela, without dropping bombs and large military budgets and great (unintelligible), by raw acts of courage and wisdom changed the course of the world. I would not like the projection of Rosa Parks being this mild, meek, almost simple woman who stepped into history and became famous. That's not true. Rosa Parks was a militant woman, very clear about what she was doing. The fact that the NAACP was banned in many states, you could not be a teacher, a public official and be an NAACP member. She joined in that environment, and she got on the bus and she wasn't arrested for jaywalking, you know, or for speeding, Ed, you know. The sign above the driver's head read, `Colored people in the rear, whites in the front. Unless you do it, you'll be punished by law.'

She chose to go to jail or be banned or die. That was a huge act of courage. I have a great sense of history. I once asked her, `Mrs. Parks, why did you truly go to jail that day?' She said, `I thought about Emmett Till and I couldn't go back.' Her sense of being part of a great tag team, the impact legally of Thurgood Marshall, May 17th, 1964, and Emmett Till, August 28th, 1955, Rosa Parks, December 1st, '55, and then Dr. King, she was a part of a great tag team that took on the Jim Crow laws.

GORDON: The Reverend Jesse Jackson, thank you so much for your remembrance of a true American icon. He joins us today from South Africa.

We now turn to Congressman John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan. He joins us from Detroit via cell phone. He is on his way, I'm told, to the airport, heading back to Washington, DC.

Congressman Conyers, we should note that Rosa Parks worked for you in your office from 1965 to 1988. Talk to me about the courage of this woman as she continued beyond that one day of defiance and really led as an example for her entire life.

Representative JOHN CONYERS (Democrat, Michigan): Well, Ed Gordon, what happened with Rosa Parks is that that one day shot her--it catapulted her to a leadership role in the civil rights movement. She is the mother of the new civil rights movement, and it was confirmed by her bringing the leader of the movement to the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. And so even when she was working with me across the years, Rosa Parks was traveling, she was speaking, she was receiving awards from around the country and around the world. She is now the leading figure in the civil rights movement and her passing is the end of a great, important era that changed the landscape constitutionally of America once and for all.

GORDON: Congressman John Conyers of Detroit. We greatly appreciate your time as we remember this wonderful woman who passed away of natural causes in the city of Detroit on yesterday. Thank you so much, Congressman.

We turn...

Rep. CONYERS: Well, you know, we're thinking about what can be done in Washington. This passing of Rosa Parks deserves a national tribute, and I have planned to meet with congressional and executive branch leaders to figure what else we can do as a nation to keep memory in the front of all that will come after her.

GORDON: In fact, a national salute is most appropriate. Please keep us informed.

Now we turn to Clayborne Carson, professor of history and director of the King Research and Educational Institute at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

Mr. Carson, we cannot--and I breached this with Jesse Jackson just a moment ago--underestimate the importance historically of this one act, can we?

Professor CLAYBORNE CARSON (Stanford University): No, of course not. If the Montgomery bus boycott had failed or had not taken place, I think the entire history of the freedom struggle would have been very different. You know, I think all of us have a stake, and in fact I think people around the world had a stake in the success of that boycott. So Mrs. Parks became a symbol for freedom movements throughout the world.

GORDON: And it's also to note and ofttimes history can become tweaked, there was a time that people tried to say that this was not calculated. The Reverend Jackson spoke to that issue just moments ago, suggesting that, in fact, this was not just some seamstress who was tired and just all of a sudden didn't want to get up, and the bravery, the simple act of courage it took for this woman to involve herself in this is monumental.

Prof. CARSON: And I think you have to place that in a historical context. I mean, she had been--she and her husband, Raymond, had been involved in the freedom struggle since the 1930s when they got involved in the Scottsboro case, which was probably the most important legal case of the era, and it took a great deal of courage to become a supporter of these black defendants who were on trial for life. So in the '30s she's involved in that. In the '40s she's registering to vote, and she also had an encounter where she refused to go to the back of the bus, or at least refused to obey the rules about segregation on the buses back in the 1940s. And even before the bus boycott she had attended Highlander Folk School, which was a school for--very controversial school for labor organizers. So she was a person who throughout her life did what she could and stood up for freedom.

GORDON: And we should also note, Mr. Carson, that as history will prove, sometimes it takes the stars to be aligned and the right person for the job. As Branch Rickey chose the character of Jackie Robinson, while she was not the first to defy this, not even the first woman, all of what Rosa Parks was indeed made this movement successful.

Prof. CARSON: Of course. I think that E.D. Nixon and Martin Luther King and many of the other people involved in the boycott, they were so pleased when it was Rosa Parks because they knew that she was a woman of great character and she had the strength to put up with the death threats and the other kinds of intimidation that came after she was arrested. So I think they knew that she was the perfect client to take this case and to become the test case against segregation in the South. And she was the perfect symbol because, you know, I don't think over the years anyone found anything to besmirch her character, so she was the ideal symbol for a great movement.

GORDON: She, in fact, remained that until we lost her yesterday. Clayborne Carson, professor of history and director of the King Research and Education Institute at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

We also thank Congressman John Conyers of Michigan and the Reverend Jesse Jackson for joining us in our remembrance of an American icon, Rosa Parks.

This is NPR News.

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