The `Quiet Strength' of Rosa Parks
Civil rights figure remembers Alabama bus protest and Martin Luther King
BOSTON — `HE always told me I was as close to him as a telephone if I ever needed him,'' says Rosa Parks in remembering Martin Luther King Jr. from the tense, dangerous days in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955.No two names have more historical meaning than Dr. King's and Mrs. Parks's in the Montgomery bus strike, which is acknowledged as the protest that triggered the civil rights movement in the South. Monday is Martin Luther King Day. Now a gentle octogenarian, Parks remembers seeing King for the first time. ``It was in August of 1955,'' she says in a telephone interview. ``He came to speak at the Montgomery branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It was just a regular meeting, and he wasn't well known then, but he was so eloquent and said we all had to work together to improve our lives.''At the time, Parks was married and working as a tailor's assistant in a downtown department store. For 10 cents she usually rode the bus home each day. But on the first day of December in 1955, she sat in the first seat just behind the section reserved for whites. As more and more whites got on the bus, the driver ordered Parks to give up her seat, which meant she would have to stand.
`I HAD made up my mind quickly,'' says Parks. Contrary to the impression that her feet were tired, and that the NAACP had planned the event, she refused to move because she was ``tired of being pushed around, tired of the Jim Crow laws, tired of being oppressed. I was just plain tired.''In her book, ``Quiet Strength,'' just published by Zondervan House, she says, ``I felt the Lord would give me the strength to endure whatever I had to face. God did away with all my fear. It was time for someone to stand up - or in my case, sit down. I refused to move.''She was arrested and put in jail for a few hours, and later had a $10 fine returned to her.With King's leadership, the black community, mustering its strength in numbers, successfully boycotted the bus line for 381 days. When the bus boycott started, King and community leaders arranged for the 18 black taxi companies in the city to carry passengers for the same price as the bus. When the city said the cabs had to charge a minimum of 45 cents, over 150 people volunteered their private cars.More than a year later the US Supreme Court declared the segregated bus ordinance to be unconstitutional.
``I have always admired Mrs. King too,'' Parks says. ``During the time when Dr. King was having such a rough time in the protests with so many threats from the segregationists, Mrs. King's parents wanted her to stay with them in Atlanta until the dangers had passed. But she refused, and remained at his side to help him all she could.''
Later King wrote that Parks was the right person to fulfill a historical role in the civil rights movement.
``She was a charming person with a radiant personality, soft spoken and calm in all situations,'' he wrote. ``Her character was impeccable and her dedication deep-rooted.''
PARKS has been a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church all her life. ``The Bible is a great consolation for me, particularly the book of Psalms,'' she says, ``I still have the Bible my great-grandmother used.''
Of the recent attack on Parks by a young black male looking for money in her Detroit home, she says, ``I pray for this young man, and the conditions in our country that have made him this way.''
In memory of her husband, several years ago Parks founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development.
At summer sessions, black and white youngsters are involved in exercises that trace the history of the underground railroad in the South up to the civil rights movement. ``We have to get the attention of young people today,'' Parks says, ``and give them inspiration and guidance.''