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The Legacy Of Rosa Parks  

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You might be familiar with the story of Rosa Parks from history lessons. However, we should consider her story is perhaps more relevant today than ever before. With tumultuous times in American politics and the rise of nationalism in the UK and Europe, we should all be grateful for Rosa Parks actions, and how she affected society in the modern age. Her story is more important now than ever not just for the growing problems of racism. One December day, sixty years ago, Rosa Parks, known as ‘The Mother of Civil Rights,’ sparked the movement for racial equality with her decision to relinquish her seat to a white person on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

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In a time when transport was segregated by law in the South, the 42-year-old seamstress persisted and resided firm and chose to be arrested, rather than give into a system she felt was deeply unjust. Parks’ arrest on December 1, 1955 launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott by 17,000 black citizens. Rosa Louise McCauley was born in Tuskegee, Alabama on 4th February, 1913. From the start, she had a determined spirit that was nurtured by her mother and grandparents.

In 1931, she met Raymond Parks, a politically active barber and they married in 1932. She died on October 24th, 2005, aged 92. Rosa Parks became the first woman in U.S. history to lie in state at the Capitol where fifty thousand people including entertainers and dignitaries from all over the world came to pay their last respects. Her body was taken by horse drawn carriage with the coffin draped in the US flag to the cemetery in Detroit. As the hearse passed, thousands of people cheered and released white balloons – she was a very special sort of hero to ordinary people. February 4th is celebrated as the National Rosa Parks Day. Rosa Parks’ early writings reveal how much she opposed racism, stating, “determination never to accept it, even if it must be endured,” which led her to “search for a way of working for freedom and first class citizenship.” In 1943, she became secretary of the Montgomery branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and worked in this role for the next decade. The branch, under the leadership of Parks and E.D. Nixon, focused on voter registration, pursuing legal remedies for black victims of white brutality and sexual violence and defending the wrongly accused.

After years of such efforts, she grew increasingly discouraged by the lack of change. Parks said she refused to give up her seat to honor Emmett Till, a teenager who was beaten to death on Aug. 28, 1955 by white supremacists – a crime for which no one was ever prosecuted. Parks’ writings reveal that she was well aware that her refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger meant she might “be manhandled but I was willing to take the chance… I suppose when you live this experience… getting arrested doesn’t seem so bad.” Martin Luther King heard her story and, together with other civil rights activists, started the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Maintaining the bus boycott required an elaborate, intensive car-pool system to ensure that black people were still able to attend work and school. For a year Parks worked to help sustain the protest and encourage riders and drivers to keep going. In her detailed instructions to carpool riders and drivers, she wrote, “Remember how long some of us had to wait when the buses passed us without stopping in the morning and evening.” With this act of defiance, she proved that it is possible for a person to make a stand against an unjust law. Ultimately, this is how revolutions begin. It does not matter how many people disagree with an injustice, if no one is willing to take the risk and stand against what they believe is wrong, nothing will change. Although Rosa Parks might not have set out to become such a famous figure, her act of defiance was the spark that finally ignited the smoldering civil rights movement. Her arrest started a wave of protests that led to the Civil Rights March to Washington where 250,000 people heard Martin Luther King give his ‘I have a dream speech’ on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. She faced harassment because of the notoriety gained from her protest and arrest.

Nonetheless, Parks went on to spend a lifetime devoted to promoting civil rights. In 1999, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honour given to a civilian. Think today about the #MeToo movement started by Tarana Burke and Alyssa Milano in 2017 in response to repeated sexual harassment by men in positions of power like Harvey Weinstein. The small but brave voices at the outset, gathered volume, respect and influence. The culture of ‘brushed over’ accepted sexual harassment by those in power will no longer be allowed to flourish – all because someone had the courage to stand up and say ‘no more’. In essence, the most famous lines from Rosa Parks autobiography remain relevant today and form a mantra which we would be wise to carry with us; “I was not tired physically,” Parks wrote in her autobiography. “No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

07 September 2020

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