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A SEAT ON THE BUS, A SEAT AT THE TABLE
October 25, 2005
 
To the end of her life, Rosa Parks was beautiful: her radiant smile, the knowing snap of her black eyes, the braided coronet of her hair that went from coal black to white over the years. Her clothes were classic and understated, and you never saw a photograph of her in which she was not elegant.

But these things were details, not at all her main focus in life. She had more important things to think about than her hair or her clothing, and she thought about those important things for as long as she could think at all. The dangerous act of integrating the seating arrangements on Montgomery's public transportation was begun by this slight young woman and carried forward by thousands of people who walked, drove, bicycled, even skated to work and school -- got there any way they could that did not involve taking a city bus, and did it there for more than a year.

A lovely young woman, looking younger than her 42 years. A very young Dr. King -- we forget how young he was when all this was going on: he was only 39 when he was killed in 1968. We forget how young and how human they were: not supermen and superwomen, not without fault and not without error -- just human beings who understood their own worth and were brave enough to claim what they knew was theirs by right. And smart enough to know that the rightness of their cause would not by itself ensure its success, but that sheer numbers would, that you can't run a bus system if nobody rides the bus.

Depending on how you count, Mrs. Parks either had no children or millions of them. "The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement," she is often called, although she herself usually brushed that title aside. She was more interested in the movement. She knew that the movement had many fathers and many mothers, that it was in its unity that its strength and its future lay.

And in its children. Mrs. Parks feared that young people would take their freedoms for granted, would not remember what it had cost to win them. That their parents would be embarrassed to tell them how they used to live, about the colored restrooms and drinking fountains, the restaurants in which they could not eat, the car trips they planned carefully, carefully, so that there would be a colored motel to stay in, a colored gas station on the way, a place to pull over and have a picnic of food they brought themselves because there might be no place for a black person to buy any. About being cautioned never to look a white person in the eye. About yielding, always yielding, always giving place, no matter what.

White people didn't know the strength of the black community. Didn't know about its dedicated teachers, doctors, ministers, merchants and business people. Did not know about its reverence for education and civility. Did not know how self-sufficient it had been forced to become, and what that self-sufficiency would mean for the system of American apartheid that was beginning to show cracks.

But on December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat on a city bus to a white man who demanded it, they were about to find out.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara Crafton
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