Rep. John Lewis on Rosa Parks' Enduring Legacy

In Depth

Georgia Congressman John Lewis discusses the enduring legacy of Rosa Parks, who died Monday at age 92. During the height of the civil rights movement, Lewis served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and worked alongside Parks.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Fifty years ago, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus.

(Soundbite of 1966 KPFA interview)

Mrs. ROSA PARKS: The time had just come when I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed, I suppose.

Unidentified Man: Well, Mrs. Parks, had you planned this?

Mrs. PARKS: No, I hadn't.

Unidentified Man: It just happened.

Mrs. PARKS: Yes, it did. In our area, we always try to avoid trouble and be as careful as possible to stay out of trouble and along this line.

BLOCK: That was Rosa Parks, interviewed by Berkeley, California, radio station KPFA in 1966.

Rosa Parks died last night at the age of 92. Her refusal that day to comply with racial segregation led to the Montgomery bus boycott. It was a seminal event in the civil rights movement, a single, quiet act of defiance.

(Soundbite of 1966 KPFA interview)

Mrs. PARKS: The driver said that if I refused to leave the seat, he would have to call the police. And I told him, `Just call the police,' which he did. And when they came, they placed me under arrest.

Unidentified Man: Wasn't that a pretty frightening thing, to be arrested in Montgomery, Alabama?

Mrs. PARKS: No, I wasn't frightened at all.

Unidentified Man: You weren't frightened?

Mrs. PARKS: No.

Unidentified Man: Why weren't you frightened?

Mrs. PARKS: I don't know why I wasn't, but I didn't feel afraid. I had decided that I would have to know once and for all what rights I had as a human being and a citizen even in Montgomery, Alabama.

SIEGEL: The death of Rosa Parks brings to mind some questions: What makes some people stand up against injustice while others who might be more obvious candidates for courage don't? Representative John Lewis of Georgia was a civil rights worker. He knew Rosa Parks for many years, and he joins us from his office on Capitol Hill.

Welcome to the program. Congressman Lewis, what do you think it was about Rosa Parks that led her to take that act of civil disobedience against an unjust law?

Representative JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): Rosa Parks was this unbelievable but quiet, poised, beautiful, young woman who had enough. She saw segregation, she saw racial discrimination, and she came to this point where she felt that she couldn't take it anymore.

When I was growing up in rural Alabama 50 miles from Montgomery as a young child, I saw those signs that said `White men,' `Colored men,' `White women,' `Colored women.' And I asked my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, `Why segregation? Why racial discrimination?' And they would say, `Don't get in trouble. Don't get in the way. That's the way it is.' Rosa Parks got in the way. She inspired my generation to get in the way, and you had all of the necessary ingredients for the beginning of a very powerful movement.

SIEGEL: She was the one who did that, and yet you've used the word `quiet' as one of several adjectives to describe her; quiet, soft-spoken, humble. These adjectives recur in all the remembrances.

Rep. LEWIS: Well, there's something powerful, there's something so powerful when someone is dignified and they can bear witness to the truth. Just sitting there, not moving, not flinching, not talking loud, but a very simple act was an act of civil disobedience, non-violent resistance that carried a very powerful and very strong message to the black leadership in Montgomery and to the rank-and-file members of the black community in Montgomery.

SIEGEL: I try to imagine myself sitting in that bus in Montgomery, Alabama. I would have been in the front of the bus, I guess, in those days. And I assume that her demeanor--one could not have conceivably read any menace whatever into her sitting where she was sitting. To object to that, you simply had to believe in racial segregation. There was no other rationale whatever for saying she should move.

Rep. LEWIS: To meet Rosa Parks during that period--you know, she was a woman at peace with herself and no sense of bitterness or malice toward anyone. And I think many of the people in the local community in Montgomery--they knew her. And after she was arrested and taken to jail, people started saying, `You know what happened to Ms. Parks? You know what they did to Rosa Parks?' And the word spread around Montgomery like wildfire, through the churches and others, and people like E.D. Nixon, the loyal labor leader there, had been active with the NAACP, said, `We got to do something.' And he contacted this young minister, 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr., and they had a meeting and selected him to be their spokesperson.

SIEGEL: And when we try to understand why this particular act of defiance--and I've read that there were other people who had defied Jim Crow laws in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, but this one led to all that followed. The character of Rosa Parks is essential to that story, you're saying?

Rep. LEWIS: I don't think there's any question the very being of this woman--she was the right person. She was a seamstress, acted in her church. She had all the necessary ingredients to become the symbol of non-violence resistance to segregation and racial discrimination in public transportation in Montgomery.

SIEGEL: She lived long enough to be honored for what she did and to see the system that she defied crumble and disappear.

Rep. LEWIS: Well, she lived long enough to see the walls of segregation come tumbling down, not only in Montgomery, but all across the South and all across America. I think there comes a time in the life of any oppressed people when the cup runneth over and they say, `Enough is enough.' Rosa Parks had seen segregation and racial discrimination.

And on the other hand, I believe there comes a time when there's some force or some power--I call it the spirit of history--that tracks you down and selects you to be that person, to be that vessel, to be the one to get in the way. She taught us--I know she taught me, personally--how to stand up and say no.

SIEGEL: Well, Representative Lewis, thank you very much for talking with us about her today.

Rep. LEWIS: Well, thank you very much, sir.

SIEGEL: That's Representative John Lewis, speaking to us about Rosa Parks, who died yesterday at age 92.

BLOCK: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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