Civil rights pioneer draws a nation's golden gratitude

Rosa Parks honored with Congressional Gold Medal at Capitol

June 16, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A nation's leaders celebrated a life and said "thank you" to one of the country's true heroines yesterday.

The president said "thank you," the speaker of the House said "thank you," the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson said "thank you," all taking their turns at the lectern in the Rotunda of the Capitol.

And when she had her chance, Rosa Parks -- whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 inspired the civil rights movement -- stood and, with helping hands supporting her, looked out on the assembled crowd and said "thank you" for the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow.

She said "we thank you," as if calling forth all those who couldn't make it, all those who walked the streets of Montgomery with her so long ago.

She stood for them, and for herself.

She is 86 now, frail, a little, silver-haired woman in a wheelchair. But yesterday, for a few moments, her spirit rose up in the great, domed room and her voice spoke with an authority beyond reproach.

"This medal is encouragement for all of us to continue until all people have equal rights," she said, her voice soft, halting at times.

"What we're working for is for all people to have equal rights to be free, to be free people. And I'm just happy to be here, and I know you must be happy, too."

"We're happy," a voice responded, and the 300 people there seemed to realize that, yes, they were happy to be there, to see this woman, to honor what she did and what she set in motion. They stood and applauded, cheered.

There were politicians and civil rights celebrities, here and there a face from Hollywood.

The Rosa Parks of 44 years ago would not have a seat here, or a place at the "invitation-only" reception that followed. But yesterday, hers was the seat of honor.

"Forty-four years ago, Rosa Parks reminded us that we were a long way from our ideals, that for millions of us our history was filled with weary years," said President Clinton.

"Rosa Parks said, `I didn't get on the bus to get arrested. I got on the bus to go home.' In so many ways, Rosa Parks brought us home to our founders' dream."

The story is worth repeating. It tells how at the right time, and through the right person, something happens that catapults a nation forward.

For America, that person was Rosa Louise McCauley Parks on Dec. 1, 1955, on a City Line bus in Montgomery.

"What I try to make people understand is that the moment is very important, but it's not so much what she did, but who she was that was the real catalyst," author and historian Taylor Branch said earlier.

"Other people had done the same thing but there was no effect and you never heard of them."

Earlier that year, Montgomery police had dragged Claudette Colvin, 15, off a city bus and arrested her for refusing to move when ordered. But Colvin was pregnant. She wasn't the right person. History wanted Rosa Parks.

"She was at once beyond reproach and unremarkable," says Branch. "She was not a pillar of the community or among the elite."

Parks was a 42-year-old seamstress with a long history of activism. She worked at a downtown department store. That Thursday evening she took a seat on the Cleveland Avenue bus, front row of the middle section. Blacks could sit there as long as no whites were standing.

At the next stop, several whites got on. The driver, James Blake, demanded the seats. Parks refused, though other blacks gave up their seats.

The legend says Parks kept her seat because her feet were tired. The facts are just as powerful.

"My feet were not tired, but I was tired. Tired of being pushed around," she wrote in her book, "Quiet Strength," "tired of seeing the bad treatment and disrespect of children, women and men just because of the color of their skin."

A dozen years earlier, Blake had kicked her off the bus for refusing to enter through the back door, as was the custom. Nothing came of that incident.

Now, Blake gave her a second chance to give up her seat. She did not move. Police came. By evening the news was all over Montgomery's black community. By Monday, the bus boycott was on, and a tide was moving through history.

Less than two years later, nine students braved a gantlet of howling racists to integrate a high school in Little Rock, Ark.

Not three years after that, four young black men sat down at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.

Then came Freedom Rides, marches, sit-ins, the world-changing upheaval of a generation ago.

It started in Montgomery. The news touched lives, changed how people looked at their world and how they saw themselves in that world.

A few miles from Montgomery, John Lewis, then 15, followed the drama on the radio and through stories in his grandfather's newspaper.

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