Happy Birthday, Rosa Parks

'Rosa Parks Arrested' photo (c) 2008, Matt Lemmon - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Today, February 4, is the birthday of Rosa Parks. I used to have a very romantic idea that she was just a poor, tired woman whose weary legs led to a major civil rights victory. But that version of the story does not give Parks enough credit. The truth is that Parks knew exactly what she was doing that day. The truth is that Rosa Parks and God had been working together for years to prepare for that moment on the bus.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks finished her day’s work at Montgomery Fair department store in Montgomery, Alabama, and boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus. Because of her African-American and Cherokee-Creek ancestry, she was required to sit in the “colored” section of the bus, which she did.

As the bus continued on its route, the “white’s only” section filled up, and the bus driver asked Ms Parks and the other three black passengers in the first row of the “colored” section to get up so that the newly-boarded white passengers would have a place to sit.

Four days before she was asked to give up her seat on the bus, Parks had attended a mass meeting to discuss recent murder of Emmett Till and assassinations of two prominent civil rights leaders.

That summer she had attended the Highlander Folk School where she had received leadership training for participation in the civil rights movement.

Before that she had taken a job as housekeeper and seamstress for Clifford and Virginia Durr, a white couple who supported the civil rights movement and made it possible for Parks to attend the Highlander School.

About ten years before being asked to give up her seat, she had worked at Maxwell Airforce base, which was integrated. She was allowed to sit anywhere she wanted on the trolly.

A couple of years before that she joined the NAACP and became secretary for the local chapter.

Before that she managed to register to vote on her third attempt.

And for her entire life she was part of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

All those years of hearing the Gospel. Of praying. Of seeing different possibilities. Of learning leadership strategies. Of participating in conversations about the way things needed to change.

In a later interview, Parks said, “When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.” The other three passengers in her row moved further back in the bus. Parks scooted over to the window seat and stayed put.

The bus driver told her, “if you don’t stand up, I’m going to have to call the police and have you arrested.” She said, ‘You may do that.” (from Eyes on the Prize)

So he did. And she was. Less than a year later, the United States Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation on buses.

The story of Rosa Parks makes me think of the question that Mordecai asked Esther: “Who knows but what you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”

So today I give thanks for brave women who prepare, face their fears, and change the world.

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