Rosa Parks and Me
During my career as a newspaper journalist I covered a wide variety of subjects and events. But when left to my own devices, I gravitated toward stories about the Black experience. My intention as a writer was to raise awareness, dispel misperceptions and explore the diversity of African American culture in all its forms. I also wanted to play a part in documenting our history and validating the people who make it great.
Civil rights icon Rosa Parks is one of those people I had an opportunity to write about. A lifelong activist, she is most known for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her act of defiance helped to ignite the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott and launch the start of the modern civil rights movement.
Last month, Montgomery officials unveiled a statue of Mrs. Parks 64 years after the bus boycott. It will remain standing in a downtown plaza not far from the spot where she is believed to have boarded the bus that made her famous. Also, in her honor last month, the first exhibition of Mrs. Park’s personal collection was opened and placed on display at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
I met Mrs. Parks in the summer of 1989 when I was covering a group of high school students traveling by bus to spend a week visiting civil rights landmarks in the south. Mrs. Parks—the living legend—was to be the highlight of the tour. Although Mrs. Parks was not the first person to be arrested and fined for refusing to comply with the segregated bus laws, her case is the one that motivated members of the NAACP led by Rev. Martin Luther King to organize the boycott that lasted for 381 days. From Dec. 1, 1955 to Dec. 20, 1956, black residents of Montgomery refused to ride the city buses. Instead of paying the 10-cent fares that the bus service relied on, they walked or organized carpools to get where they needed to go. The economic boycott crippled the bus service and led to the Supreme Court ruling that segregated busing was unconstitutional. The success of that boycott is what made it possible for me and a fully integrated group of students to ride the bus decades later without any concern about giving up our seats or losing our dignity.
Except for the mild toothache that I began to experience midway through the tour, everything went smoothly. I documented the students’ experiences at each of the historic stops. In Atlanta, they received a short course on nonviolent organizing at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and visited the Lorraine Motel, which is now a museum in Memphis, Tennessee where Dr. King was assassinated. Their final stop was Selma, Alabama, where they would meet Mrs. Parks at the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge. The bridge was the site of what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” where peaceful voting rights demonstrators were brutally attacked by police on March 7, 1965 during what would be the first of three attempts to march to the state capitol in Montgomery. The police used clubs, high-powered water hoses and vicious dogs to stop them.
To honor the demonstrators, the Detroit students took a symbolic walk across the bridge before spending time with Mrs. Parks who flew in from Detroit to meet them. A native of Alabama, Mrs. Parks and her husband Raymond relocated to Detroit a year after the bus boycott. Although it was hot on that day in Selma, Mrs. Parks looked cool and comfortable in her flowered dress and wide-brimmed hat that provided her shade as she stood at the foot of the bridge. Her humble demeanor belied the magnitude of her celebrity as she patiently posed for photographs, signed autographs and chatted with the students. When it was time for my interview with her, my toothache had gotten progressively worse. I was in grinding pain and she noticed my discomfort. In an unexpected gesture, Mrs. Parks invited me to her hotel room where she would call her friend in Montgomery who was a dentist to ask him to fit me into his schedule.
At the hotel, Mrs. Parks handed me a cotton ball soaked with tea tree oil to place it on my aching tooth. I had never heard of tea tree oil, but she assured me that it would provide temporary relief. The pain did ease long enough for me to get to the dentist who informed me that I needed to have a root canal. He prescribed pain medication so I could comfortably finish my work and return home. For obvious medical reasons I did not ride the bus back with the students. I ‘voluntarily’ gave up my seat to anyone who wanted it and caught a plane back to Detroit. I left Selma with a deeper appreciation for the “mother of the civil rights movement” and a special fondness for tea tree oil.
Mrs. Parks passed away peacefully at her home, sixteen years after we met. She was 92 years old and a national treasure. I am forever grateful for the opportunity that I had to document just a small part of her outstanding life.