My older sister Deborah tells the story of a moment between her and our Aunt Rosa that she’ll always remember.
It was the 1950s. The horrific, racist lynching of teenager Emmett Till was still in the conscience of black America, more than a year after he’d been shot and dumped into a Mississippi river, supposedly for flirting with a white woman.
Deb found herself in the midst of adult family members who were discussing the murder. Although she doesn’t recall everything, what sticks in her mind is how our aunt suddenly noticed and reacted to her presence.
Deb, just a few years younger than Emmett had been, became frightened by some of the world’s dangers and coldness beyond her block on Detroit’s southwest side. She related this fear to her aunt, along with overwhelming confusion about why her complexion drew unearned resentment. Her salvation was her aunt’s words.
“Just remember you are as good as anybody,” Deborah was told as she stood with our aunt on the family’s porch. She would never forget those words.
That aunt, whom I shared with Deb and 12 other siblings, was Rosa Parks. As the world marked her 100th birthday this month, her family continues to recall her as their beloved matriarch and role model. We think of our dear Auntie Rosa in ways that let us cherish who she was as a person, apart from a symbol of bravery and determination.
Auntie Rosa was devoted. When she, her husband, and our grandmother joined our family in Detroit after the historic Montgomery bus boycott ended, it was a beautiful reunion.
Our father had left Alabama and gone into the military, swearing he would never again live in the segregated South. Reconnecting with our grandmother and aunt was one of his happiest occasions.
I was only 8 or 9 years old, but I recall the joy in the house whenever our aunt was present, or when eventually we would visit her at her own home, enjoying ice cream or sitting in her favorite chair.
Auntie Rosa embraced all of us like her own sons and daughters. She couldn’t have children, but she was another parent figure to our little clan.
She lived with us during the first few years of her move to Michigan, so it became normal for us to see her in the kitchen and at the dinner table. Sometimes she gave the girls sewing lessons or told us stories about our family’s history. She seldom talked about the civil rights movement, preferring instead to be a source of extended support for us.
An avid reader, she subscribed to newspapers and magazines from around the country, stockpiling them to build a personal library. Reading was probably her favorite hobby. She shared with us how she walked great distances to get to a book, as there were no libraries where she grew up in segregated Alabama.
Aunt Rosa didn’t want to be thought of as an extraordinary woman. If she were alive today to see the recent announcements of a postage stamp in her honor, and a statue that I had the privilege of helping President Obama and others unveil in Washington, D.C., yesterday, she would be grateful, but a bit overwhelmed.
She believed that everybody had value, and that everybody had something to contribute to society. When it came to personal recognition, she wasn’t a seeker. Auntie Rosa didn’t want to be elevated above anyone else.
As one of a relative few who were close to her for most of her life, I hope that Americans who buy her stamp or visit her new monument will fight any urge toward hero worship. Even while she met world leaders and famed historians, she never saw herself as a hero.
Auntie Rosa would hope only to remind us that we all have the power, and the responsibility, to challenge injustice.
Sheila G. Keys, of Detroit, is the seventh niece of Rosa Parks. She is at work on a book about her aunt.
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