To the Point for 12/8/2005

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SHE WAS A SEAMSTRESS who was simply on her way home from work in Montgomery, Alabama. She was 42 years old when she climbed onto the Cleveland Avenue city bus, found a seat and rested herself.

Moments later, when a bus driver told her to stand up and give her seat to another person based solely on the color of her skin, Rosa Parks became the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement”.

Simply by staying seated.

That moment was 50 years ago, and with Rosa Parks’ passing this fall, the anniversary of that day in Alabama comes into even sharper focus.

Her “crime” of violating segregation laws cost her a $10 fine and $4 in court costs; but over the following decades it formed the nucleus of an entire movement.

When Rosa Parks was arrested, her plight caught the eye of a 26-year old minister at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. At a ministers meeting following the arrest, he was drafted to head the “Montgomery Improvement Association”, an organization that would become the leading force in civil rights in the South.

That minister was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

So 50 years have passed since that day, and slowly but surely civil rights and racial equality are becoming the norm of our society. Is it happening quickly enough for some? No. But probably too quickly for others.

Here in Switzerland County, the anniversary has some special significance for me because of a group of students who are now freshmen in high school here.

Last May I chaperoned the eighth grade trip to Dearborn, Michigan with our middle schoolers. I have been there several times, but last May there was a new exhibit that I hadn’t seen before in the Henry Ford Museum.

Sitting off to the right of the main entrance was a green and yellow bus. The sign above the windshield said “Cleveland Ave.” The host on the bus invited the kids on board.

With visitors seated in the seats of the bus, our guide began to tell the story of Rosa Parks and how her single act of defiance changed the course of this nation.

He told the kids that they were sitting on the very bus that Rosa Parks had been on that day — and he pointed to a seat occupied by Kelsi South and said,

“In fact, she was sitting in that very seat, right there.”

Now learning occurs in all sorts of settings, but I have to believe that when those students, now freshmen, heard of Rosa Parks’ death on October 24th of this year, I’m sure that most of them told of how they’d seen the bus that she was on, and some reported that they had sat in the very seat that she was ordered to vacate.

Rosa Parks’ body would lie in state in the Capitol rotunda — only the 20th person in history to be accorded such an honor. Of them 19 were presidents and war heroes — and one was an Alabama seamstress.

The bus from the Henry Ford Museum was taken to Washington, D.C. for her funeral; and when I saw that bus sitting there, it took me back to that May day when I saw lights go on in the faces of children who may have never before known the significance of what this one woman did.

Thankfully, our children are no longer privy to the degrees of prejudice that once permeated our society. The racial injustice that does occur today — although it, too, should not taken lightly — is leaps and bounds beyond what was going on in Alabama in December of 1955.

It was the end of a long day for a working woman; and it was also the beginning of a movement, as her conviction served as the beginning of a 13-month long bus strike by African-Americans against the Montgomery City Bus Service.

But she will also peek the interest of Switzerland County youngsters who each year travel to that museum in Michigan. They will see the bus and they will sit in the seats and they will hear the story.

And history will take on a face — the face of an Alabama woman who 50 years ago stood up for herself.

Simply by sitting down.