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November 2, 2005
Column #1,262

                        Rosa Parks: "A Piece of History"

WASHINGTON - Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Denny took their daughter, Chantel, to honor Rosa Parks under the dome of the U.S. Capitol.

"This is a piece of history," Eugene said. "She changed so much by what she did."

I asked Chantel, aged 8, what she thought of Rosa Parks. "If it wasn't for her, it would be like it was when Martin Luther King was alive. That is not right - getting treated differently. She got on a bus and a white man told her to move. But she said, `No, I'm tired. I just got off work.' So she was arrested."

I found children were more articulate than their parents. Christopher Dudley, 36, a science teacher, who walked by the casket with his children, Selina, 11 and Christopher, 7, told me, "It was very, very emotional for me. Every February I have shown a movie about Rosa Parks in teaching these kids about the impact Rosa Parks made."

I asked how he would describe the impact. "She changed...." his voice trailed off. "Wow, that is a good question." So I asked Selina about Mrs. Park's impact.

"She stood up for herself. She made a big difference in my life. Now I am free to do a lot more things that it was back then. I can drink from the same water fountain. I don't have to go to the back of the bus. I can get a better education."

I lived in Montgomery, Alabama, when Rosa Parks took her carefully planned stand of civil disobedience 50 years ago. We now know that she was Secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP. As far back as 1943 she refused to follow the rules requiring black people to enter city buses through the back door. And  months before her own defiant act, she championed the rights of a teenager, Claudette Colvin, who was arrested in March, 1955, for refusing to give up her seat to whites.

Frankly, however, as a 14-year-old white in Montgomery, I never heard of Rosa Parks. All I knew was that suddenly, Negroes were refusing to ride the buses. This was big news and a major hardship for them. Few had cars.

Negroes, as they called themselves, could be seen by the hundreds, trudging miles to their jobs. Those who were lucky enough to have a car, would stop and give a lift to their "brothers and sisters." My mother drove five miles every day to pick up our maid, Melzoria Watts, so she would not have to walk, and drove her home at day's end.

My father, who ran a small factory, was not impressed with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a 26-year-old local pastor who led the "Bus Boycott." "He has a point that Negroes should not have to stand when there are empty seats in the white section," Dad told me. "But he's not willing to accept a compromise that would create a 'movable line' so that blacks could sit all the way up front if there are no whites or few whites on board."

"That's unreasonable," I agreed with my teenage white perspective at the time.

Of course, King
was right to fight for a total desegregation of the buses. However, the Bus Boycott, which was expected to last for a few days, stretched out for more than a year, until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all public transportation should be desegregated.

Thus, Rosa Parks ignited America's first mass protest that gave impetus to the Civil Rights Movement. As Irene Lehey, a white admirer at the U.S. Capitol, told me, "She was just an ordinary person. She showed what extraordinary things an ordinary person can do."

Today's black leaders seem unable to articulate a galvanizing new vision for progress. Blacks do lag behind whites with higher rates of academic failure, joblessness and crime. For example, a black man is 1,000 times as likely to be in jail as a white man.

But is this due to discrimination or fatherlessness? Why are two-thirds of African Americans born out-of-wedlock? In Martin Luther King's day, only 28% were born to unwed parents. It seems to me that the answer is to promote healthy marriage. That is the only sure way to tie black fathers to the future of their children.

Here is a cause worthy of this generation's religious and civil rights leaders.

I erred in an earlier column, reporting that a married black couple who both worked earned $60,439 in 1999, virtually the same income as a similar white couple, with $61,878. My data came from the 2002 New York Times Almanac, which cited Census as its source. However, Census reports the black couple earned $50,439, not $60,439. The Almanac had a serious typo.

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