Letter to Africa

ROSA PARKS: One Woman's Eternal Act of Defiance That Changed a Nation
By Chika Onyeani - http://lettertoafrica.blogspot.com

On October 24, 2005, word came that Rosa Parks had died at the age of 92, and the kind of honor bestowed on her at death has never been bestowed on another woman in the history of America - her body lying at the Capitol Rontuda of the United States Congress, a honor that had been reserved for U.S. presidents and war heroes. The U.S. Congress had voice-voted unanimously that the body of Parks will lie in honor in the Rotunda on Sunday and Monday "so that the citizens of the United States may pay their last respects to this great American." Some of the other people so honored have included Presidents Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey and recently President Ronald Reagan.
But Rosa Parks had not always been regarded as this "great American." In fact, she was regarded as sub-human being in the 1940s and 50s, especially in the town of Montgomery, Alabama, where she lived. But on the 1st of December, 1955, Rosa Parks' one-woman eternal act of defiance would change America, and catapult the meteoric rise of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On that Thursday, December 1, 1955, Mrs. Parks had finished work as a seamstress and boarded a Montgomery city bus on her way home.

She had sat with three other blacks in the fifth row, being the first row that blacks could sit on. A few stops later, the front four rows were filled with whites, and one white man was left standing. At that time, blacks and whites were not allowed to seat on the same row of seats, and when all the seats in the front part of the bus were filled, blacks were then ordered to vacate the seats they were sitting. With the white man standing, the bus driver ordered the four blacks to vacate all four seats and move to the back so that the one white man could sit. The other three blacks obeyed and vacated their seats, but Rosa Parks refused to leave her seat. She was arrested and detained by white policemen.

Africans, we are speaking of 1955 in the southern part of the United States of America where blacks were not allowed to drink from the same water fountain as whites, where blacks were not allowed to use the same toilets as whites, where blacks were not allowed to attend the same school as whites, but where earlier in 1776, Americans had stated as follows in their declaration of independence that they "hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Just how many times did we in our quest for independence quote these words, which would appear to ring hollow in hindsight.

So this woman called Rosa Parks didn't realise that her decision of defiance against the orders of the white bus driver would change the cause of history in America. Just imagine what would have happened if she had obeyed like the other three blacks, but she did not.

Her defiance lit the fuse that will propel the Civil Rights Movement to its greatest era of achievements. After her arrest, the then President of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), E.D. Nixon figured that this was the arrest that the organization had been waiting for to challenge the Jim Crow laws in the south. First, the police wouldn't tell him why Mrs. Parks had been arrested; so, he had to call on a white lawyer sympathetic to blacks to call the police and find out why she had been arrested. They finally bailed Mrs. Parks out.

But the blacks in the Montgomery city cried "never again," and they were determined that they would not tolerate being abused after paying their money to a bus company owned by their city. It was a decision that blacks nowadays seemed to have forgotten how to apply. Blacks decided that they would no longer ride the city buses. That night, Blacks met and decided to boycott the bus services. Remember, Rosa Parks was not the first black to have been arrested for refusing to get up for a white person; in fact, it wasn't the first time Rosa Parks had been humiliated by the same driver. In 1943, she had paid her fare to the same bus driver, but as the law stated then, she had to go back out and then enter through the back door, reserved for blacks. But before she could get back on the same driver had closed the door and drove off.

It was left to Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at the all-black Alabama State College, and a member of the Women's Political Council in Montgomery to initiate a boycott of the bus companies. She and her students passed out fliers that urged blacks to boycott the bus companies, and use any other means of transportation or walk to their jobs.

Whites never thought that the boycott would be effective; they never thought that blacks would be united in the same act of defiance that had separated America from its parent, the British government. But they were mistaken. The boycott started on the 2nd of December, 1955, and lasted for 381 days, more than a year. Blacks found other creative ways of going to work, until the white businessmen realised how the boycott was causing them to lose money - the area which matters most to white people. All their attempts at sabotaging the boycott had failed, including bombing the home of Martin Luther King, and enacting laws to force black taxi cabs off the streets. They failed woefully because blacks were united in their resistance at being humiliated.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. became who he was because one woman, Mrs. Rosa Parks, insisted on an act of defiance that changed America. It changed America because it was Mrs. Parks defiance that led to King being chosen as the first president of newly organized Montgomery Improvement Association. Then on January 10 and 11, 1957, with the ministers from the MIA joining others in Atlanta, Georgia, was founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, that then elected Martin Luther King as its president. And the rest of the Civil Rights era is history.
Looking at Mrs. Rosa Parks lying at the Capitol Rotunda under the magnificent Dome of the U.S. Congress, I feel saddened that we have lost the lesson that her one eternal act of defiance should have thought us: we have it in our power as Blacks to change our own history. She did.