The death last week of Rosa Parks at age 92 has inspired a predictableoutpouring of tributes from politicians of every partisan andideological bent. Even President Bush, a man who inspired the ire ofParks as far back as the mid-1990s, when she was campaigning againstcapital punishment in Texas, hailed the mother of the civil rightsmovement as “one of the most inspiring women of the 20th century” anddeclared that she had “transformed America for the better.”
In their self-serving rush to praise Parks prior to her funderal today,a number of politicians displayed their complete ignorance of thewoman’s history and her legacy. The worst of them was Senate MajorityLeader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, who said of the protest that sparkedthe Montogomery bus boycott of the 1950s and gave rise to thehigh-profile civil rights movement of the 1960s: “Rosa Parks’ bold andprincipled refusal to give up her seat was not an intentional attemptto change a nation, but a singular act aimed at restoring the dignityof the individual.”
Frist was, of course, wrong. Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on thatbus was an intentional attempt to change a nation. At a time when theNational Association for the Advancement of Colored People was underattack in the segregated south, Parks was an elected official of herlocal NAACP branch from the 1940s on and an activist with Voters’League, a pioneering voting rights group in Alabama. Employed byClifford and Virginia Durr, who were among the most outspoken whitesupporters of civil rights in the south, Parks was trained at theHighlander Folk School and acted as an informed and intentionalactivist.
Parks would remain an activist across the years that followed herrefusal to give up that seat on the bus, as one of the electedofficials who paid tribute to her well knew.
U.S. Rep. John Conyers, the Detroit Democrat who is the senior memberof the House Judiciary Committee, was elected to Congress in 1964, theyear the Civil Rights Act was passed. He immediately hired Rosa Parksas a member of his staff.
Parks, whose political views mirrored those of the outspoken Conyers,would remain on the congressman’s staff until her retirement in 1988.
Parks would remain close to Conyers, who recalled the other day that,when Nelson Mandela visited Detroit in 1990, the pair joined the SouthAfrican leader on stage.
Mandela got the crowd to join him in chanting “Rosa Parks!”
Conyers said that day with Mandela caused him to recognize a simpletruth: “Rosa Parks is worldwide.”
Yet the icon was also a warm and generous human being. Thus, when RosaParks died, Conyers explained, “America lost a living legend; and I,along with countless others, lost a friend.”
As a token of his respect for his former aide’s accomplishments,Conyers always referred to her as “Mrs. Parks.” But there was nothingformal about their friendship. She regarded him as the most importantpolitical leader in the many struggles that she waged–not just forcivil rights but for peace, economic justice and, in particular, an endto the death penalty.
The congressman regarded “Mrs. Parks” as something akin to a secularsaint, as his warm reflection on her passing makes abundantly clear:
We all knew that Mrs. Parks was frail. We always feared this moment,and now it is here. The extent to which she will be missed cannot bedignified with words.
She and her husband moved to Detroit in 1957, and I think it is fair tosay we bonded right away. Mrs. Parks was there with me at the beginningof my career as a Congressman in 1965 and worked for me as myadministrative assistant for next 20 years until her retirment in 1988.I am therefore one of the lucky few who have had the privilege of beingable to call her my colleague, as well as my friend.
As the mother of the new civil rights movement, she left an impact notjust on the nation, but on the world. And while she was an apostle ofthe nonviolence movement, Mrs. Parks never saw her self that way. Shenever sought the limelight and was never really a political figure atall. It was important to her that people understand the government andto understand their rights and the Constitution that people are stilltrying to perfect today.
Mrs. Parks will endure in my memory as an almost saint-like person. AndI use that term with care. She was very humble and soft-spoken, butinside she had a determination that was quite fierce. You treated herwith deference because she was so quiet, so serene.
There will only ever be one Rosa Parks…”
And there will only ever be one John Conyers.