Rosa Parks took her stand for civil rights -- by sitting down. She moved to front of bus and integration followed

THIRTY years ago a black seamstress refused to give up her seat to a white passenger in a bus in Montgomery, Ala. She was arrested and fined $14. This incident sparked a civil rights explosion in the United States, one that outlawed ``separate but equal'' facilities and education for blacks and whites in the South and challenged ``lip service'' freedom and civil rights for blacks outside the old Confederacy.

Rosa L. Parks sat until she was forced off the bus Dec. 1, 1955, thus igniting the Montgomery bus boycott, a movement that catapulted a young minister, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., into the forefront of the civil rights movement.

``Montgomery and Alabama certainly have changed since those days, says Mrs. Parks, who now lives in Detroit. ``Blacks hold elective office. They work downtown in good positions. Things are much better.''

She cautions the nation and black people, however:

``We are disturbed when we see so little being done by so many. We are at an age now that it feels like it is time for others to move on and take our place. We must work together for peace, justice, and goodwill for all people. That was Dr. King's idea of the beloved community. We must keep alive this dream always.''

Others agree with Mrs. Parks. Dr. King's dream has not been achieved, although much progress has been made in human rights.

``Her stand was quite remarkable, a heroic act when she refused to move to the back of the bus,'' says Prof. Glenn Loury of Harvard University, a black conservative, on leave to teach at Princeton University. ``Unfortunately, that does not mean our problems have been resolved.''

``The overt signs of racial bias -- separate water fountains, separate waiting rooms, separate schools, separate dining facilities -- are in the past,'' says Dr. Loury, an economist.

``Other problems are still with us, but we suffer most from severe economic plight. But solutions for today are not in the realm of civil rights.''

Forget ``handouts'' and federal ``social programs,'' he adds.

The private sector is concerned with effects of reported future changes in federal policy. ``Affirmative action is no longer a hassle with us,'' B. Lawrence Branch, director of equal employment affairs at Merck & Co. of Rahway, N.J., told a recent conference in Boston.

``We're not threatened with reverse discrimination suits,'' he says of Merck's nationally copied affirmative-action program.

``Nor do white employees accuse us of hiring unqualified minorities to meet our affirmative-action goals. But what happens if the administration alters its civil rights policies radically?''

Civil rights leaders have mixed opinions.

``Everything has changed, but nothing has changed,'' says the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, once led by Dr. King.

``In the 1960s Bull Connor [Birmingham, Ala., police commissioner] threw us in jail, sicked dogs on us, turned the water hose on us. Today Birmingham has a black mayor. Last year he picked me up at the airport and gave me a key to the city,'' Mr. Lowery says.

``But in the shadow of City Hall I saw black people still living in slums, still suffering from ill housing and empty stomachs. Downtown I met blacks of the expanding middle class. In the shadows of downtown I observed a growing underclass.

``In Birmingham everything has changed, but nothing has changed.''

The NAACP emphasis on legal rights is the key to equity for blacks in the United States,'' says Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), also a minister, lawyer, and business entrepreneur.

Rosa Parks was the prototype of the new civil rights activist, he says. ``She took direct action,'' he explained. ``In retrospect her action destroyed the framework of separate but equal. The whole cycle of Jim Crow had to go.''

The movement is not dead, he contends. ``The scene of battle has shifted -- to affirmative action in housing, jobs, and education,'' he says. ``And legally we must fight these battles case by case.''

``I wish there were more courageous people like Rosa Parks today,'' says Joseph Delaney of Oxford, Miss., a community worker and journalist. ``Mississippi has more elected black officials than any other state, but they have no power to improve our quality of life. It's business as usual in this state.''

Mississippi blacks are fighting a number of voting rights cases in court, he says. ``I don't think we've come very far. We're losing ground through at-large elections, gerrymandering, and our own naivet'e. In one community we let $10 bills influence our vote.''

``Many good things have happened in Boston since 1955 as well as in the rest of the country,'' says Jack E. Robinson, president of the Boston NAACP. ``Boston has a black superintendent of schools. Blacks have been promoted in the police and fire departments, but our youth still can't find jobs here. Affordable housing is hard to find.''

``One person, a black woman, made a difference in the dark days of Jim Crow,'' said Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women. ``Because of Rosa Parks, we struck down segregation as a system. We have the legislation, but not the enforcement. Today, we face a more difficult hour. We need the vigor of individuals and organizations to create a new impact.''

Mrs. Parks, the ``mother'' of the 1960s ``movement,'' crisscrosses the nation encouraging young people and students to wage the war for civil rights. She works as a receptionist in the Detroit office of US Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan. She moved to Detroit in 1957 after the US Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation on public transportation in her appeal of Montgomery's $14 fine.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.