TALKING IT OVER
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON
I was 7 years old in 1955. Yet it feels as if I've known the story of
Rosa Parks my whole life. Rosa Parks worked as a seamstress for a department
store in Montgomery, Ala. On Dec. 1, 1955, at the end of a long day, she
boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus, taking a seat along with two other African
Americans in the first row of the "colored section." When a white man demanded
that all three move to the back so he could sit down, Mrs. Parks refused. "Our
mistreatment was just not right, and I was tired of it," she explained.
To the driver who threatened to call the police to remove her from the
bus, Mrs. Parks quietly replied, "You may go on and do so."
Rosa Louise McCauley Parks' action that day was, in itself, a simple
one, but it required uncommon courage. It rebuked those who denied the dignity
of and restricted the rights of African Americans. And it inspired every
American who was struggling to shed the prejudices of the past and to build a
This was not the first time Mrs. Parks had been ordered off a city bus.
Many times before, she had suffered humiliation and indignity at the hands of
white Montgomery. That same driver had put her off his bus 12 years earlier for
refusing to re-enter through the back after she paid her fare. "I didn't want
to pay my fare and then go around to the back door, because many times, even if
you did that, you might not get on the bus at all," she remembers. "They'd
probably shut the door, drive off and leave you standing there." As is true
with most legends, the real story of Rosa Parks is more complicated than we
have been led to believe. Rosa Parks did not remain in her seat because her
feet were sore and her bones were tired. In her words, "The only tired I was
was tired of giving in." Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. explained it this way:
"Rosa Parks was anchored to that seat by the accumulated indignities of days
gone by and the countless aspirations of generations yet unborn."
Mrs. Parks had long been an activist in the fledgling civil rights
movement, first as secretary to the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People and later organizing the NAACP Youth Council. But although she
protested, "I did not get on that bus to get arrested; I got on that bus to go
home," Rosa Parks was the perfect plaintiff for a test case challenging
Montgomery's segregation laws.
The city's African American population rallied to her cause, and 42,000
boycotted the public buses on Dec. 5, the day of her trial. But what started
out as a one-day protest stretched to 381 days, until the United States Supreme
Court ruled against the city and its public-transportation system.
By Dec. 21, 1956, when Mrs. Parks finally took a seat at the front of
one of Montgomery's buses, she had lost her job, and her family had become the
target of harassment and death threats. But her quiet dignity had ignited one
of the most significant social movements in the history of the United States.
When historians look back at the 20th century, they will see the triumph of
America as the triumph of freedom -- the triumph of democracy over
dictatorship, of free enterprise over state socialism and of tolerance over
bigotry. They will remember that the fight for freedom was waged not just on
the beaches of Normandy and the islands of the South Pacific but in the
classrooms, at the lunch counters and on the public buses of the segregated
South. At stake was one simple, yet revolutionary, American ideal: We are all
On that fateful evening 44 years ago, Rosa Parks reminded us all that
America fell short of this, our most cherished ideal. She reminded us that, for
millions of Americans, equality was an illusion and that the ugly shackles of
racism denied African Americans the very opportunity that was the promise of
This week, in a moving ceremony in the Capitol rotunda, the President
honored Mrs. Parks with our nation's highest honor, the Congressional Gold
Medal -- and a grateful nation said, "Thank you."
As we look to a new century and a new millennium, it's up to all of us
to celebrate the people, places and stories that define us as individuals and
as a nation. It's up to all of us to teach our children the story of Rosa Parks
and the values of freedom and equality she stands for. And it's up to all of us
to complete the difficult work that she and so many others began over 40 years
Only then can we celebrate the rich diversity that is our nation's
greatest strength. Only then can we unite around a common vision of what it
means to be one America.
COPYRIGHT 1997 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED