Cassandra Spratling,Detroit Free Press
DETROIT -- In 1990, a cadre of dignitaries gathered at Metro Airport to greet South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela. On his way to the airport, federal judge Damon J. Keith stopped to pick up another freedom fighter.
When Mandela got off the plane, every dignitary seemed invisible to him except one; and he headed straight for her.
"Rosa Parks! Rosa Parks! Rosa Parks!" Mandela said, while hugging her.
"Mandela and his wife were just thrilled to meet her," recalled Keith, now a senior judge of the U.S. District Court Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. "Of all the people there to greet him, the one who stood out to him was Rosa Parks."
That incident at the airport speaks volumes about the impact Rosa Parks had on America and the world.
On Monday, Parks, who died in 2005, would have been 100 years old.
Her centennial birthday draws fresh attention to the black woman who, in the midst of Jim Crow segregation in Montgomery, Ala., refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man.
This courageous act, which resulted in her arrest, sparked a year-long bus boycott that began to knock down the walls of legalized racial segregation in America.
People who knew Parks and scholars who have studied her say the best way to honor her legacy is to carry on her life's mission - to make America a better place for all people, regardless of color, class, gender, or economic background.
The myth of the tired seamstress
Parks began trying to do just that well before the evening of December 1, 1955, when she took a stand by continuing to sit down.
She and her husband, Raymond Parks, a barber by trade, were political activists in their home state of Alabama for years. Sadly, one of the most enduring myths about Parks is that she refused to give up her seat because she was tired after working all day as a seamstress in downtown Montgomery.
That myth bothered Parks for years and prompted her to write in her 1992 autobiography, "My Story," (Puffin, $6.99). "People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day . . . No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in."
Historian Jeanne Theoharis underscores Parks' nearly lifelong activism in a new book she wrote about Parks entitled "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks," (Beacon, $27.95). Theoharis, a professor at the Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, is one of several Parks' scholars scheduled to speak at The Henry Ford museum complex in Dearborn, Mich., on Monday.
People need to know the full story of Parks' activism to fully appreciate who she was, Theoharis said. Failing to do so limits Parks' significance, erroneously casting her as a woman who did a single courageous act down South, then moved North to quietly live out her life.
"The myth of the simple seamstress took on a life of its own," Theoharis said. It became part of a kind of romanticizing of the civil rights movement, that has, in fact, stifled it, she says. "If she is going to be used to tell the story of American history, we need to tell the whole story."
People need to know, Theoharis says, "how undaunted she was and how fearless she was and how she kept on keeping on."
A pair of activists
In Detroit, Parks fought against police brutality, economic injustice, and for political empowerment, and against apartheid in South Africa - among other issues.
Unfortunately, neither the press nor the wider public paid close attention to Parks after the boycott.
"Usually the people interviewing her just wanted to know the sensational part, and what was sensational is what was publicized and most often that was the boycott," said her longtime friend and ally Elaine Steele of Detroit. "People were more interested in the event."
Parks desire to continue working to improve the lives of others and fight injustice was the reason the two of them started the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development in 1987. The institute, among other activities, organizes trips for young people to travel to historic places. The institute also offers a program in which young people tutor senior citizens in computer skills.
Parks wanted her husband's name to be a part of the institute because too few people knew that Raymond Parks too, had been a fearless freedom fighter. It's one of the things she loved about him. When she met him, he was one of the primary people working to free a group of black men in Alabama sentenced to the electric chair for raping two white women, despite nonexistent evidence. The men became known as the Scottsboro Boys.
Raymond Parks had also fought for voting rights for blacks in Alabama, but was never able to register to vote himself until after the couple moved to Detroit in 1956.
"Parks was also the first real activist I ever met," she said of her husband in her autobiography. "He was a long-time member of the NAACP when I met him. . . . Parks was the first person ever to mention that case to me-about what was going on with the Scottsboro Boys and how he and a few others had gotten together to raise money to help pay the legal fees and defend them in court and keep them out of the electric chair. They were working in secret, and he didn't even tell me the names of the others. Parks used to say that all their names were Larry."
Raymond Parks died in 1977.
Friends in high, low places
Steele initially met Parks when she was a high school junior in the early '60s. She Her after-school job was working at a sewing factory, making aprons. The person she sat next to was Rosa Parks.
"I knew how to operate a domestic machine, but I was not as familiar with commercial machines. Commercial machines are 10 times faster," Steele recalled. "I had to remove many of my stitches because they were no way straight."
Parks showed her how to remove the stitches quickly and how to move steadily while operating the commercial machines.
Their friendship continued after Steele graduated high school and started working as a clerk in the federal building. Parks had been hired as an administrative assistant to the newly elected Congressman John Conyers, Jr.
Conyers said he met Parks when she lived in Alabama. As a young lawyer, he had gone down South to assist in the civil rights movement.
When he decided to run for Congress, she began volunteering for his campaign. "Everybody was just amazed that I had Rosa Parks on my campaign staff. I'd made up my mind that as soon as I got elected, one of the first people I would hire would be Rosa Parks."
Theoharis' book praises Conyers for hiring Parks because until that time, in spite of her fame, Parks' economic footing was precarious.
"Recognizing her need, skills, and the value to his own emerging political base, Conyers put an end to a decade of economic insecurity for Rosa Parks," Theoharis writes in her book. "With this position, Parks now had a salary, access to health insurance, and a pension - and the restoration of dignity that a formal paid position allowed."
In a recent interview, Conyers said he was blessed to have Parks working for him. "Many times people came to my office just to see Rosa Parks; to get a picture with her, to get her autograph or just to say hello," Conyers said.
Besides, he owed her a debt of gratitude. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Detroit to endorse his run for Congress, and Conyers said, "I'm sure she had a lot to do with that."
Quiet, humble Mrs. Parks
Conyers described Parks as a humble, quiet person. "She never raised her voice. She never was angry or argumentative.
"Here's how humble she was: She was always getting invitations to travel to speak, frequently long distances. She came to me one day and asked that her pay be reduced because I was letting her go to these engagements.
"She is the only person, in all my time working, who has ever asked for a pay decrease." He refused her request.
Parks worked for Conyers until her retirement in 1988. She never sought the limelight, Conyers said. In fact, she preferred to avoid it.
"If you didn't know who she was, you'd think she was just another citizen, not someone famous who is given credit for reviving the civil rights movement in this country.
"I think the best way for people to honor her is to exemplify her ideas in their own lives: to continue to struggle for justice for all, and to resist discrimination of any sort."
Perhaps Parks said it best in "My Story:"
"I have spent over half my life teaching love and brotherhood, and I feel that it is better to continue to try to teach or live equality and love than it would be to have hatred or prejudice. Everyone living together in peace and harmony and love. . .that's the goal that we seek, and I think that the more people there are who reach that state of mind, the better we will all be."