Rosa Parks: Appreciation of a Rights Pioneer

Civil rights trailblazer Rosa Parks, who helped to spark the battle for equality in the Jim Crow South by refusing to obey a law forcing blacks to sit at the back of city buses in Montgomery, Ala., has died at the age of 92. Karen Grigsby Bates offers an appreciation, featuring Parks in her own words.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

Rosa Parks, often referred to as the mother of the American civil rights movement, died yesterday. All around this country, schools, highways, civic centers are named in her honor, but before she was an icon, she was, in her words, an ordinary person who had had just enough of segregated busing. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this appreciation.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

The photos are famous: A petite, caramel-colored woman in a hat, suit and rimless eyeglasses looks on patiently as a policeman inks her slender fingers one by one. Rosa Parks, a Montgomery, Alabama, seamstress, was being arrested and booked for an unpardonable crime in 1955 Alabama. She had refused to give her seat to a white man when requested. But for years afterwards, she wanted audiences to know why she stood--actually sat--her ground.

(Soundbite of speech)

Ms. ROSA PARKS: I was not sitting in the front of the bus, as so many people have said, and neither was my feet hurting, as many people have said. But I had made up my mind that I would not give in any longer to legally enforced racial segregation.

BATES: Rosa Parks decided that the more black Southerners complied with the ever-growing list of segregation's demands, the longer the list grew, and enough was enough. Here, in 1984, she tells NPR's Susan Stamberg what happened when a bus driver told her and three other black passengers to vacate their seats in the segregated section so a white passenger could sit.

(Soundbite of interview)

Ms. PARKS: He said, `You all make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.' And at that point, the man next to me and the two women stood and moved out into the aisle. In fact, I permitted the man to move past me and then I stayed where I was.

BATES: This driver and Rosa Parks had history. More than a decade before, he put her off a bus for refusing to use the bus's back door. Now he threatened to return with the police if she didn't move. She placidly remained seated. He left and returned in a few moments as promised. The police approached.

(Soundbite of interview)

Ms. PARKS: Then one approached me and asked me if the driver had asked me to stand. I said, `Yes, he did.' He said, `Well, why don't you stand up?' I said, `I don't think I should have to.'

BATES: And she remained seated, although she did have a question for one of the officers.

(Soundbite of interview)

Ms. PARKS: `Why do you push us around?' He said, `I do not know, but the law is the law and you are under arrest.' And the moment he said I was under arrest, I stood up, and one picked up my purse and the other my shopping bag, and we left the bus together.

BATES: So with two Montgomery, Alabama, policemen as her de facto valets, Rosa Parks seated herself in the back of a cruiser and was taken off to be booked at the city jail.

There were others before her who had been arrested for non-compliance, but at the time the NAACP was looking for the perfect person to illustrate the injustice of segregated public transportation. Rosa Parks was perfect. Attractive, well-spoken, a complete lady in her demeanor and carriage, she was exactly the right public face of their lawsuit against the Montgomery Bus Company.

Mrs. Parks' arrest lit a spark of black protests that, Montgomery's city fathers would soon discover, had a very long fuse. The Montgomery bus boycott would last for more than a year.

(Soundbite of interview)

Ms. PARKS: Many times I had had problem with bus drivers, but this was the first time that people in Montgomery took enough notice of this incident to cooperate with each other and remain off the bus, and that attracted the attention of the entire city, first of all, other places, the country. And it just spread.

BATES: Indeed, the bus boycott launched the career of a fledgling minister named Martin Luther King Jr., and turned the full glare of world attention on Southern apartheid. In the end, the bus company almost went bankrupt, then capitulated. Martin Luther King marched into history as the civil rights movement's shepherd, and Rosa Parks became an icon, and determined to the end of her life to advocate for one nation, indivisible.

(Soundbite of speech)

Ms. PARKS: As I look back on those days, it's just like a dream, and the only thing that bothered me was that we waited so long to make this protest and to let it be known, wherever we go, that all of us should be free and equal and have all opportunities that others should have.

BATES: Rosa Parks died yesterday evening at her home in Detroit. She was 92 years old. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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