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The Real Legacy of Rosa Parks


David-vs.-Goliath Battles
Not Taking This Anymore

Rosa Parks may not have borne any children, but she has become known as the mother of the civil-rights movement because of a solitary nonviolent act of defiance: On December 1, 1955, she refused to give her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, as was required by law. She knew the bus driver was the same man who had kicked her off a bus 12 years earlier because she wouldn’t re-board through the back door after paying her fare. “I was not tired physically,” she explained. “No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

The soft-spoken 42-year-old seamstress was not naïve about her possible fate if she kept her seat. Rosa Parks and her husband, Raymond, were active in the Montgomery NAACP. They knew that some black people had been beaten—even killed—for breaking the discriminatory bus laws.

Rosa Parks explained that she “could not go to the back of the bus” when she thought about Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black teen from Chicago who had been brutally murdered in Mississippi that August after he reportedly whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman. Emmett was the only child of Mamie Till, a widow. Photos of the boy’s disfigured corpse in a glass-topped casket were published around the world.

A few weeks before Rosa Parks refused to budge from her bus seat, a jury acquitted Roy Bryant (Carolyn’s husband) and his half brother, J. W. Milam, of killing Emmett, even though they admitted they had kidnapped him. When the trial was over, Look magazine published an interview in which these men described how they murdered the boy. In 2005, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till was released in theaters (

After Rosa Parks was arrested, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a young minister who had recently moved to Montgomery, became leader of a new group that was later known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Black people constituted 70 percent of bus riders in Montgomery. Thousands of them supported a 381-day boycott of Montgomery buses, until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the city’s segregation law was unconstitutional. In 1954, in the historic Brown v. Board of Education, the Court had banned segregated education in public schools.


David-vs.-Goliath Battles

During February (Black History Month), many students will learn about the courageous woman who started a revolution by sitting still. Rosa McCauley Parks was born on February 4, 1913, and died last October 24, shortly before the 50th anniversary of her historic bus ride.

She received numerous honors during her lifetime, including both the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. When she died, she became the first woman whose body was allowed to lie in honor in the Capitol rotunda. And plans are under way for a statue of her in the U.S. Capitol.

But there’s a negative side to her story, too. Rosa and Raymond Parks lost their jobs and received so many threats in Montgomery after her sit-in that they moved to Detroit. And, following her death, there are reports of a bitter feud over her estate.

But the real legacy of Rosa Parks goes beyond awards and material wealth: It’s the example she set. Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, D.C., wrote in the Catholic Standard newspaper that Rosa Parks taught us “that we must never allow any person to be treated as inferior or without respect” and that “a simple, ordinary person with courage and a sense of her own dignity as a child of God could make such an enormous difference in the modern history of our country.”

Not Taking This Anymore

Many of us have been taught to control our emotions, especially anger. Sometimes, we need to be reminded that justifiable anger can be good, especially when there is gross injustice. Without anger, evil has no opposition.

One of the most memorable movie quotes is Peter Finch’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Howard Beale in the film Network, when he shouts, “My life has value!” Then he screams, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Rosa Parks may not have screamed out loud on the bus that day in 1955, but I imagine she clenched her jaw and thought, My life has value and I’m not going to take this anymore!

There are many well-known people like her whose acts of defiance have led to reforms, such as Susan B. Anthony, Mahatma Gandhi and Oskar Schindler. But we also need to recognize the courage of others whose names are largely unknown.

Consider, for example, the first victims of clergy sex abuse who broke their silence and influenced others to tell their stories. They were joined by supporters who weren’t “going to take this anymore.” Their actions led to reforms that, hopefully, will prevent further incidents.

Let these and others like them influence us to have the courage to demand respect for ourselves and others by knowing when to sit still, when to speak out and when to get angry. —M.J.D.

For more information about Rosa Parks, see the Web site of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development (

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