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Rosa Parks' lifetime struggle for equality
(China Daily)
Updated: 2005-10-26 05:51

Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man sparked the modern US civil rights movement, has died at age 92.

Rosa Parks, pictured in 1999, the petite black seamstress whose defiance aboard a city bus nearly 50 years ago sparked the US civil rights movement and helped Martin Luther King Junior gain national prominence, died at the age of 92 at her home in Detroit, Michigan.[AFP]
Parks died at her home on Monday evening of natural causes, with close friends by her side, said Gregory Reed, an attorney who represented her for the past 15 years.

Parks was 42 when she committed an act of defiance in 1955 that was to change the course of US history and earn her the title "mother of the civil rights movement."

At that time, segregation laws in place since the post-Civil War Reconstruction required separation of the races in buses, restaurants and public accommodation throughout the South, while legally sanctioned racial discrimination kept blacks out of many jobs and neighbourhoods in the North.

The Montgomery, Alabama, seamstress, an active member of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, was riding on a city bus on December 1, 1955, when a white man demanded her seat.

Parks refused, despite rules requiring blacks to yield their seats to whites. Two black Montgomery women had been arrested earlier that year on the same charge, but Parks was jailed.

US legislator John Conyers, in whose office Parks worked for more than 20 years, remembered the civil rights leader as someone whose impact on the world was immeasurable, but who never saw herself that way.

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said he felt a personal tie to the civil rights icon: "She stood up by sitting down. I'm only standing here because of her."

Former President Bill Clinton praised Rosa Parks as "a woman of great courage, grace and dignity" who "was an inspiration to me and to all who work for the day when we will be one America."

Speaking in 1992, Parks said history too often maintains "that my feet were hurting and I didn't know why I refused to stand up when they told me. But the real reason of my not standing up was I felt that I had a right to be treated as any other passenger. We had endured that kind of treatment for too long."

Her arrest triggered a 381-day boycott of the bus system organized by a then little-known Baptist minister, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who later earned the Nobel Peace Prize for his civil rights work.

"At the time I was arrested I had no idea it would turn into this," Parks said 30 years later. "It was just a day like any other day. The only thing that made it significant was that the masses of the people joined in."

The bus boycott, which came one year after the Supreme Court's landmark declaration that separate schools for blacks and whites were "inherently unequal," marked the start of the modern civil rights movement in the United States.

Landmark decision

The movement culminated in the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act, which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations.

After taking her public stand for civil rights, Parks had trouble finding work in Alabama. Amid threats and harassment, she and her husband Raymond moved to Detroit in 1957. She worked as an aide in Conyers' Detroit office from 1965 until retiring in 1988. Raymond Parks died in 1977.

Rosa Parks became a revered figure in Detroit, where a street and middle school were named after her and a likeness of her was featured in the city's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Parks said upon retiring from her job with Conyers that she wanted to devote more time to the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development. The institute, incorporated in 1987, is devoted to developing leadership among Detroit's young people and initiating them into the struggle for civil rights.

"Rosa Parks: My Story" was published in February 1992. In 1994 she brought out "Quiet Strength: The Faith, the Hope and the Heart of a Woman Who Changed a Nation," and in 1996 a collection of letters called "Dear Mrs. Parks: A Dialogue With Today's Youth."

In 1996, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to civilians making outstanding contributions to American life. In 1999, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honour.

Parks received dozens of other awards, ranging from induction into the Alabama Academy of Honour to an NAACP Image Award for her 1999 appearance on CBS television drama series "Touched by an Angel."

The Rosa Parks Library and Museum opened in November 2000 in Montgomery. The museum features a 1955-era bus and a video that recreates the conversation that preceded Parks' arrest.

"Are you going to stand up?" the bus driver asked.

"No," Parks answered.

"Well, by God, I'm going to have you arrested," the driver said.

"You may do that," Parks responded.

Parks' later years were not without difficult moments.

In 1994, Parks' home was invaded by a 28-year-old man who beat her and took US$53. She was treated at a hospital and released. The man, Joseph Skipper, pleaded guilty, blaming the crime on his drug problem.

She was born Rosa Louise McCauley on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama. Family illness interrupted her high school education, but after she married Raymond Parks in 1932, he encouraged her and she earned a diploma in 1934. He also inspired her to become involved in the NAACP.

Looking back in 1988, Parks said she worried that black young people took legal equality for granted.

Older blacks, she said "have tried to shield young people from what we have suffered. And in so doing, we seem to have a more complacent attitude.

"We must double and redouble our efforts to try to say to our youth, to try to give them an inspiration, an incentive and the will to study our heritage and to know what it means to be black in America today."

At a celebration in her honour that same year, she said: "I am leaving this legacy to all of you ... to bring peace, justice, equality, love and a fulfilment of what our lives should be. Without vision, the people will perish, and without courage and inspiration, dreams will die the dream of freedom and peace."

(China Daily 10/26/2005 page7)

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