Two weeks ago today I was in Montgomery, Alabama. Montgomery is called the Capital City of the American South, home to the short-lived Confederate presidency of Jefferson Davis to birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. Its motto: Change happens here.
The sky was a typical Alabama bright blue, the weather sunny and crisp for a late November day. I drove downtown and there it was. A small commemorative sign dedicated to mark the spot where Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the city bus. This was not far from the Montgomery Biscuits Class AA affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays and the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel and Spa at the Convention Center. Change happens here.
Fifty-five years ago today, Mrs. Parks, the secretary of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, seared her legacy. She was not the first to refuse to take the designated "coloreds only" seat in the back. Many others had done so by December 1, 1955. Maybe it was her quiet resolve or the police mug shot of the middle-aged seamstress that led to a 381-day Montgomery bus boycott and a civil rights movement that found its spark.
Parks boarded a bus being driven by James Fred Blake. She had a long history with Blake. In 1943, he had ordered her off his bus for taking her seat from the front. Blacks were supposed to pay the driver from the front but then step out and board the bus from the back. That night Rosa Parks walked home in the rain after Blake drove off. Parks later said that she generally avoided Blake whenever she could. But on that December night in 1955, Parks had refused to move from the middle section of the bus and Blake called the police for her arrest. Blake explained: "I wasn't trying to do anything to that Parks woman except do my job. She was in violation of the city codes, so what was I supposed to do? That damn bus was full and she wouldn't move back. I had my orders." Blake remained a driver for the Montgomery city bus lines until 1974.
The Montgomery of today is a virtual shrine to her memory. There is Rosa L. Parks Avenue and Rosa Parks Place, a Rosa Parks branch of the Montgomery Library, the Rosa L. Parks city park, the Rosa Parks Quick Stop convenience store, Rosa Parks Place apartments and the Rosa L. Parks Avenue Church of God. Troy University sponsors the Rosa Parks Library and Museum. Ironically, Rosa Parks the person left Montgomery, Alabama for Detroit, Michigan just two years after her history-making turn in that city bus. Her celebrity had led to threats. But the Rosa Parks legacy of conscientious objection continues.
Rosa Parks died in 2005 at the age of 92. She outlived Martin Luther King, Jr. by thirty-seven years. King was a 26-year-old minister at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery when the 42-year-old seamstress holding a bag of groceries refused to give up her seat to a white male passenger on the Cleveland Avenue bus line. Dr. King would become the spokesperson for the Bus Boycott and educate the people in the methods of nonviolent civil disobedience.
This "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement" was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, forty miles east of Montgomery, in a family whose heritage was African-American, Cherokee-Creek, and Scots-Irish. Her American Indian heritage is the same as the Snow family, though I haven't quite traced all the documented details.
Many will celebrate the memory of Rosa Parks today. I think Google got it right with the image of children pouring out of a bus fifty-five years after Rosa Parks refused to move. It is idealistic, of course, but inspiring. The Civil Rights Movement continues to remind us of what one individual can do to create change. It happens here.
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