Parks emboldened Baltimore activists

They say they were swept up in her energy

October 26, 2005|By KELLY BREWINGTON | KELLY BREWINGTON,SUN REPORTER

Rosa Parks has at times been erroneously characterized as an everyday seamstress who refused to give up her bus seat to a white man because she was "tired" from a long day's work.

But Parks, who died Monday night at the age of 92, would later set the record straight, asserting that she was not tired physically, but "tired of giving in."

Yesterday, local civil rights leaders and scholars remembered Parks as the determined activist who refused to be treated as a second-class citizen. For them, the "mother of the civil rights movement" was both ordinary and extraordinary. She illustrated the power of one individual to make profound change, an example that inspired foot soldiers nationwide to follow her lead.

"I was terribly impressed," said the Rev. Marion C. Bascom, a retired minister at Douglas Memorial Community Church and a noted Baltimore civil rights leader.

"In fact, she was the one who gave inspiration to the movement and provided Martin Luther King a voice that could electrify the world," he said. "We never would have heard of Martin Luther King if it had not been for Rosa Parks."

By the time Parks acted in defiance Dec. 1, 1955, Baltimore was teeming with civil rights activity, challenging Maryland's Jim Crow laws.

Bascom, who was a friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., orchestrated sit-ins at restaurants along U.S. 40 as early as 1950. Under the leadership of Baltimore NAACP branch President Lillie M. Jackson, mother-in-law of Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., the civil rights organization's membership rolls swelled to more than 18,000 by 1946. And as early as 1947, students at what was then Morgan State College marched on Annapolis to protest inequities in university funding.

"There was a good deal of activism going on in Baltimore already," said Bascom. "The city was afire. The preachers were organized. We did sit-ins, kneel-ins, whatever it took, you name it."

But Parks' arrest and the 13-month Montgomery bus boycott that it prompted emboldened Baltimore activists.

Clarence Logan, a 1960s-era leader at Morgan State, recalls how student activists like himself were inspired by Parks.

"When you look at that moment on that bus, her refusing to give her seat up to a white man, it characterized what students were trying to do at that time to change the country," he said.

Logan would become swept up in the energy.

In 1955, Logan was a 22-year-old airman stationed at Eglin Air Force Base at Fort Walton Beach, Fla. He and his fellow GIs were struck by the dichotomy they saw at home, Logan remembers. Abroad, they had risked their lives for American values of freedom and equality, but in their own country, discrimination barred them from ordering a hamburger at a lunch counter or watching a movie.

Meanwhile, activism was spreading fast throughout the South.

"Shortly after, there was the Tallahassee bus boycott, which took its lead from Montgomery," Logan said. "You could feel the momentum building."

By the time Logan enrolled at Morgan in 1957, the campus was a caldron of civil rights agitation.

"The movement changed me completely," he said. "It gave me a different view on life. I knew that things needed to be changed."

For others, Parks was emblematic of the unsung soldiers of the civil rights movement - women.

Anne Emery, a native of Alabama and retired assistant superintendent of Baltimore schools, remembers feeling personally moved by Parks actions.

"It made me aware that someone else had some of the pain that I had and that I needed to help," she said.

There were many women such as Parks who led by example, but have been overlooked by history, Emery said.

"Women are perceptive, and they have guts," she said. "And in this case, they knew it was the right thing to do. They had to take some very strong stances, and they did.

"She inspired togetherness," Emery said of Parks.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was 5 years old in 1955, but Parks' legacy would play a role in his life.

Growing up in segregated Birmingham, Ala., the movement played out all around him. His parents organized carpools for neighbors when blacks in Birmingham waged a bus boycott and everyone seemed to be talking about Parks.

"I heard her name all my life," he said. "People talked about her as an ordinary person who did something extraordinary. The idea was that you didn't have to be a charismatic minister to be involved. Each person could play a role in the movement."

By age 12, Hrabowski took part in his first demonstration, was arrested and spent five days in jail.

"It was always encouraging for me to think about the difference she made, from one single act of courage," he said.

Though Parks was an activist in her own right, a secretary of the Montgomery branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and an organizer of the bus boycott, she is not always remembered for those roles. For many, she was on par with the masses, someone with whom it was easy to identify.

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