BY MARK CURNUTTE
The Cincinnati Enquirer
FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich. - Forty-three years after refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Ala., bus - the peaceful protest that ignited a national movement - Rosa Parks remains on the civil rights watch.
Like conductors on the Underground Railroad 100 years before her, Rosa Parks will be remembered for her quiet courage and leadership.
(Yoni Pozner photo)
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Mrs. Parks will receive the first International Freedom Conductor Award from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center on Saturday in Cincinnati. The black-tie event at the Westin Hotel is sold out.
"We're trying to set a standard," Freedom Center President and CEO Ed Rigaud said. "Conductors on the Underground Railroad were courageous people, but they were common people. Not celebrities. Rosa Parks exemplifies that."
Mrs. Parks appreciates the many accolades and acknowledgement of her role in the civil rights movement. But she is a woman still eager to contribute. At age 85, frail and with pacemaker in place, she wants to be more current than her five-paragraph entry in the World Book Encyclopedia.
She stays in the public eye, even though she is intensely private and humble. The former seamstress is comfortable making quilts or attending Sunday service at St. Matthew AME Church in Detroit. She stands in line at the grocery store and waits her turn to talk on radio call-in shows.
But she also knows that the name Rosa Parks and her mere presence draws attention to social causes she supports.
"I will do whatever I can to further education, economic opportunity and prosperity for all people," Mrs. Parks said in an interview in a suburban Detroit nursing home, where she dedicated a computer learning center earlier this month. "I will do as much as I can for as long as I can."
These days, making a contribution means showing up, saying a few words and meeting people. That was the case at Botsford Commons, the nursing home in Farmington Hills.
In 1955, in Montgomery, Ala., seamstress Rosa Parks is fingerprinted after being arrested for refusing to give up a bus seat to a white rider.
(AP file photo)
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Mrs. Parks wore a flowered-print dress and a white baseball cap over her full head of braided gray hair. She walked slowly, sometimes using a wheelchair to cover long distances.
Nursing home staff and residents waited in line to meet her. A food-service employee, James Beckom, 39, couldn't control his glee after his introduction.
"She inspired me when I was a kid and she still inspires me today," said Mr. Beckom, a Mississippi native. "Our people pay homage to her for what she has done for us. Meeting her is like touching a piece of history."
Mrs. Parks will always have a place in history. She's the mother of the movement, civil rights activists say, an example that common people can accomplish the uncommon.
"The importance of Rosa Parks in American culture is almost singular in that it's not just what she did, but God's use of her in the fullness of time," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said. "There's something divine about her."
Even an attack in 1994 couldn't stop her. She was beaten in her house and robbed of $53. The assailant, a black man and a drug abuser, reportedly recognized her but hit her in the face anyway.
"I'm a little bruised. I believe I can go on with what I planned to do," Mrs. Parks said at the time. She now lives in a secured apartment building in downtown Detroit.
That response, short and to the point, is typical of Mrs. Parks these days. Her voice comes out softly but evenly, and she sometimes defers to her assistant, Elaine Eason Steele, to elaborate.
A fiercely loyal staff of six and dozens of volunteers organize Mrs. Parks' more than 100 carefully selected public appearances a year. She approves each one.
"It's much better to be friendly and not be selfish," Mrs. Parks said. "I just like to see people happy and be as happy as I can myself. Life is what you make it."
Thousands of requests
She no longer makes speeches. She prefers settings in which she answers children's questions or dedicates programs or buildings that bear her name.
The Farmington Hills event was the dedication of the Rosa L. Parks Learning Center of Michigan. Come Oct. 5, high school students will teach seniors there how to use computers and, in turn, learn life lessons. Mrs. Parks, who enrolled in swimming classes for the first time three years ago, will be one of the senior computer students.
The program is the model that Mrs. Parks and her staff plan to expand nationwide; a similar program bearing Mrs. Parks' name is under way in Los Angeles.
In 1997, Mrs. Parks received more than 2,000 requests for speeches, appearances and endorsements, including one from an author who was writing a book about celebrity feet and wanted a photograph of Mrs. Parks' toes. (Her staff didn't respond to that one.)
She has never cashed in on her celebrity by endorsing a product, although she has filmed public service announcements to promote voter registration.
Mrs. Steele and Mrs. Parks are co-founders of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development. The Detroit-based organization honors Mrs. Parks' late husband, promotes human development programs and coordinates Mrs. Parks' schedule.
Mrs. Parks' lawyer, Gregory Reed, co-founded the Parks Legacy with Mrs. Parks to maintain the history and lessons of the civil rights movement.
Mr. Reed and Mrs. Steele work to ensure that Mrs. Parks is remembered. They negotiated with Troy State University in Montgomery for more than a year before reaching an agreement on a building that will house Mrs. Parks' artifacts and writings.
Mrs. Parks is "a living example of what individuals can do if they put their minds to it," Troy State board member Lamar Higgins said at the dedication.
Ground was broken in April on the $7.5 million Rosa Louise Parks Library-Museum near the site where Mrs. Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat. The 40,000-square-foot library will include a 7,000-square-foot museum honoring Mrs. Parks and other civil rights pioneers. It will open in two years.
There are hundreds of other roadways, elementary schools, parks and youth programs around the country that bear her name. Among them:
100 most influential
- Interstate 475, which rings Toledo, is known as Rosa Parks Highway. Her likeness hangs on a plaque in a Los Angeles bus station.
- Her adopted hometown, Detroit, has a Rosa Parks elementary school and boulevard.
- She is featured prominently in displays at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., and the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Ala.
Mrs. Parks' peaceful defiance on the bus is immortalized now - in April, Time magazine, citing Mrs. Parks' heroism, selected her one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century - but the act caused her and her husband immediate harm. Raymond and Rosa Parks, who had no children, left Montgomery to escape threats and harassing telephone calls related to the bus boycott.
Mrs. Parks was a seamstress at a Montgomery department store at the time of her arrest. The store soon eliminated its tailoring service, and Mrs. Parks lost her job. With Raymond Parks in poor health, the couple moved to Detroit in 1957, where Mrs. Park's brother, Sylvester McCauley, lived.
In 1965, she Parks went to work as the receptionist for Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., in his Detroit office. When she retired in 1988, she was office manager.
Mrs. Steele worked in the same building in the federal courts office. Mrs. Parks often gave the younger woman a ride home. It was during those commutes that they discovered a shared concern for young people.
Mrs. Parks considers Mrs. Steele the daughter she never had. No elderly parent ever had a more protective adult child.
As Mrs. Parks neared retirement, Mrs. Steele came up with a way to focus her remaining years.
They co-founded the Parks Institute to fulfill their ambition to help children excel and become productive members of society. In 13 years, the institute's programs have attempted to improve the self-esteem of more than 5,000 children of all races, ages 11-17.
Mrs. Parks' favorite program is "Pathways to Freedom," a two-week summer educational and historical research activity for 70 students who trace American history from the Underground Railroad to the civil rights movement. It takes the form of a summer freedom ride on a bus and stops at several Underground Railroad sites.
Breaking down barriers
But on that warm September afternoon at a Michigan nursing home, Mrs. Parks' attention turned to her primary interest: breaking down barriers that keep people apart. And attention, of course, is turned on her.
Mrs. Parks, surrounded by a half-dozen assistants, arrived at the nursing home at noon.
Her entourage consisted of Mrs. Steele and the four employees of the Parks Institute, one of whom is a registered nurse, an institute volunteer, the volunteer computer specialist who designed the Botsford program, a makeup artist and a photographer. Mrs. Parks' every move was choreographed by Mrs. Steele.
A standing ovation greeted Mrs. Parks. She acknowledged it with a wave and smile. Many of the 200 guests at the dedication wore blue buttons that read "I (heart shape) Rosa Parks," which Mrs. Parks' staff members distribute before each of her public appearances.
"We never seem to have enough," one of her assistants said.
Smiling, Mrs. Parks sat and listened to several speeches before being helped to the podium: "My late husband and I had always been concerned about freedom and equality for all people," she said. "We suffered a lot in the South."
The Botsford learning center open house was held in a dining room. Six computer stations ringed the area.
After speaking at a short news conference and meeting visitors, Mrs. Parks and her staff ate lunch in a private room.
Seventy-five minutes later, she came out to work on a computer and pose for more photographs.
Mrs. Parks spent 15 minutes at a Botsford computer with her tutor, Thiajuan Williamson, 13, a freshman at Detroit's Cooley High School.
First, Thiajuan showed Mrs. Parks a video golf game.
"Oh, my," she said as she watched a tee shot fly toward a virtual green.
Next was solitaire. Children gathered behind her chair. Photographers snapped the moment.
"It felt good. It's sort of like giving back," Thiajuan said. "She did something for me. So it was like I was able to do something for her."
Mrs. Parks said, "I want young people to get an education, take care of their bodies and have a good life."
Her public time ended with the receiving line of nursing home residents and staff.
Mrs. Steele arranged 20 Pathways to Freedom students behind Mrs. Parks. They wore white-and-blue T-shirts and blue baseball caps and were told to stand quietly and smile. Their presence made for a better picture.
No one seemed to mind the sometimes awkward staging.
After all, this is Rosa Parks. People of all races and many nationalities are drawn to her
Baseball players Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez, both all-stars with the Texas Rangers, had driven out to the suburbs from downtown Detroit, where they had played the night before against the Tigers. They wanted to meet the woman they studied in school in Puerto Rico.
Mrs. Parks didn't know who they were, and the fact they are celebrity athletes meant nothing to her. She treated them respectfully, as she does all people.
The ballplayers, however, were in awe.
"It is a dream come true to see her," said Mr. Gonzalez, 28, the 1996 American League Most Valuable Player and a candidate to win the award this season.
Added Mr. Rodriguez, 26, a catcher, "It is an honor to meet her."
With that, they tucked in behind Mrs. Parks, one off each of her shoulders, and asked to have their picture taken with her.