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Published: Saturday, 10/29/2005

A plain woman's bravery alters a nation

BY ROSE RUSSELL

I DON'T believe I ever heard Rosa Parks' voice. She was a giant in the civil rights movement, a soldier whose very simple act affects life for minorities in America today, and I can't ever recall hearing her say a word.

Now, I never will hear Mrs. Parks' voice, at least not live. She was 92 when she died in her Detroit home on Monday. The unassuming woman leaves behind millions who came to adore and respect her for her boldness almost exactly 50 years ago in Montgomery, Ala., when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus.

No one then could ever have imagined that her actions would foster volumes of literature, television dramas, or that she would be significant in other media materials.

No one could have thought that what she did would bring her a series of prestigious awards, including one named in her honor that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference gives every year.

No one then could ever have believed that the plain seamstress would be acknowledged by presidents and world leaders, that streets, highways, schools, youth centers, and that even a horse would be named for her.

Now, we cannot imagine not having all that named for Rosa Parks. Her defiance that December day on the Cleveland Avenue bus transformed the nation, but it did not make her into a vocal civil rights figure.

Her actions contributed to the domino effect that eliminated racial segregation from the public scene. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling desegregated public transportation in Montgomery.

Some have said that Rosa Parks did nothing especially remarkable, that she merely sat on a bus in the wrong place, defied orders, and got herself arrested. They are categorically wrong. Mrs. Parks showed more courage than those, especially the outsiders, who disrupted North Toledo two weeks ago. It took strength of character to break a morally reprehensible law that was rooted in racial hatred. Her arrest was only an attempt to save the ugly face of Jim Crow.

Make light of her role in civil rights if you like, but know this: No weakling would have the temerity to do what Rosa Parks did. She was tired, yes, but not physically tired. She was tired of being treated like a second-class citizen. It's only natural for a suppressed people of any race to want the same liberties as everyone else. Add to that white society's constant reminder that she shouldn't have expected to be among those created equal, endowed by her Creator with certain unalienable rights - one of them being liberty.

Rosa Parks knew not to buy into the lie of the tainted image that the Creator only extended liberty for some and not others. As a devoted, life-long member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, she also understood from church teachings that she and her race were also worthy of freedom. That basis coupled with her experiences as a black woman in America, and she quietly and determinedly embraced the necessity of taking a stand against the racial injustices that flourished in a nation that prided itself on liberty.

My foremost image of Rosa Parks is of her sitting impeccably dressed and looking out the window of the city bus. Another is of the proper woman being fingerprinted for breaking the law. A third image is of her appearing as though she couldn't figure out all the fuss as she stood in the presence of former President Bill Clinton.

Rosa Parks didn't intend to become a symbol of freedom, but she did. And then she went on with her life while everyone else made a fuss about her, because she deserved it.

Rose Russell is a Blade associate editor.

E-mail rrussell@theblade.com



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