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More than a heroine: Remembering Rosa Parks

Jack Lessenberry

I suppose I must have been one of many who, years ago, went to see Congressman John Conyers in his Detroit office and was greeted by a pleasant receptionist who looked vaguely familiar until I was stunned to realize who she was:

Rosa Parks.

The Rosa Parks – the woman who refused to give up her seat on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and sparked a revolution.

That was something like 30 years ago. Back then, I’d been told she was sort of an accidental heroine, a quiet seamstress who was just too tired to give up her seat one day, an event that led to all of black America standing up for their rights.

That, we know now, was not true.

Rosa Parks and her husband Raymond had been fighting for civil rights since the 1940s. She had managed to become one of the few blacks in Alabama to register to vote, at a time when trying to do so meant taking her life in her hands.

The bus boycott was successful, but it cost Parks and her husband their jobs. They ended up moving to Detroit, where she lived until she died 10 years ago this fall.

Years ago she mostly ceased to be treated as a person. Instead, she was an icon, trotted out on ceremonial occasions. February was both black history month and her birthday, and you could depend on the media to deliver up their annual Rosa Parks stories.

Perhaps Detroit’s worst hour of shame came when a black crack addict broke into her home, asked her if she was indeed Rosa Parks, and then robbed and hit her in the face.

But who was Rosa the human being? There’s a new book that helps answers that question.

A few years ago, a former student of mine named Eddie B. Allen was approached by a lawyer for Ms. Parks’ nieces and nephews. They wanted to share their memories. Allen, who’d published a well-reviewed biography, worked with them.

The result is a slim Penguin hardcover published this month: Our Auntie Rosa: The Family of Rosa Parks Remembers her Life and Lessons.

When an elderly George Wallace, who had repented his segregationist views, begged her forgiveness, she accepted his apology - but wouldn't let him kiss her.

The book presents the famous heroine, who herself had no children, seen through the eyes of loving people who sometimes had only the vaguest idea what Auntie Rosa had done. That is, until the likes of Presidents summoned her to be honored.

The woman who emerges here is, well, the kind of person you’d want to be your auntie; warm and loving; forgiving yet firm; not pushy but a ready dispenser of good advice.

When an elderly George Wallace, who had repented his segregationist views, begged her forgiveness, she accepted his apology – but wouldn’t let him kiss her.

The past wasn’t as easy to dismiss as all that.

It seems clear that for those who loved her best, Auntie Rosa continues to be a presence. Reflecting on how young martyrs like Medgar Evers and Malcolm X were when they were killed, they note that “Auntie Rosa lived more than twice as long. We know what she would have wanted us to do because we had so much time with her.”

Anyone reading this book is likely to feel they’ve had some time with her too.