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Civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, dead at 92, found strength in Scripture, church

DETROIT (BP)–Rosa Parks, a laywoman who, at the forefront of the civil rights movement, found strength in the 23rd Psalm and other passages of Scripture, died of natural causes Oct. 24 at her home in Detroit.

Parks, 92, died just a few weeks shy of the 50th anniversary of her Dec. 1, 1955, arrest for refusing to surrender her seat to a white man on a segregated bus –- an event that sparked the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott and the rise to national prominence of a local pastor: Martin Luther King Jr., then of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Alabama’s capital city.

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, a member of First Baptist Church in Ashland, said the state “joins the nation in mourning as we mark the passing of a remarkable life.” Riley ordered the flags at the state capitol flown at half-staff in Parks’ honor until sunset on the day of her funeral.

“Rosa Parks will always be remembered as a courageous woman who quietly confronted injustice, and in so doing, she changed a nation,” Riley said.

One of her favorite Bible passages was the 23rd Psalm.

“During my school days, the 23rd Psalm was part of our devotions, when we had devotions in school,” Parks, an African Methodist Episcopal church member and former seamstress, commented in the mid-1990s. “And at church it was one of the favorite psalms that we enjoyed reading and thinking about.

“During the time of our boycott, we did much praying and we had mass meetings at the various churches, where people would come in and testify and relate their experiences,” she continued. “It was very helpful that we had the churches and could gather strength from one another and encourage each other to continue the struggle throughout that long year of boycotting the buses.

“I look back on those days and remember the Spirit within us and our faith and hope that things would be better, and I still have that faith,” Parks said. “When we face any obstacle, any discouragement, that faith is a strong attribute to have.”

Gary Frost, executive director of the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association and a former second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said, “Through the years, I’ve admired the gentle strength and the humble resolve of Sister Parks.

“She is much more than a symbol of nonviolent protest. She is the epitome of a peacemaker,” said Frost, who played a pivotal role in the Southern Baptist Convention’s adoption of a racial reconciliation resolution in 1995.

Robert Anderson, immediate past president of the National African American Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention, said of Parks’ 1955 arrest, “It was the bus ride that ended up changing history…. From that small act of defiance came a big act of deliverance, which would lead to the Supreme Court case in which they ruled segregation in public transportation to be illegal and unconstitutional.

“That began to affect other things,” said Anderson, pastor of the Baltimore-area Colonial Baptist Church in Randallstown and a member of the SBC Executive Committee. “If it’s wrong there, on the bus, then it’s wrong in schools, it’s wrong in restaurants, it’s wrong in other places.”

Parks’ stance “not only helped blacks throughout the country but also helped everybody,” Anderson said. “If one person is not receiving justice and is not treated fairly, and it’s supported by the law, then that destroys all levels of justice.”

Anderson said he hopes “that the attention given to Sister Rosa Parks in honor of what she has done and how God has used her in the civil rights efforts in the United States of America might be one of those signposts to remind us that racial reconciliation is still an important function. We’re not quite there yet in all of our racial acceptance of one another and working together and ministering together — and being on mission together. Maybe this occasion might prompt us again to say, What more can we do to further racial reconciliation in the body of Christ? Particularly even among Southern Baptists.”

Sid Smith, retired director of the Florida Baptist Convention’s African American ministries division who held numerous posts in Southern Baptist life during a 40-year career, said Parks was “a giant for civil rights who appeared on the scene at exactly the right time. Her courageous defiance of Jim Crow tradition on a segregated Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955 sparked the most successful movement for human rights in American history and launched the unparalleled career of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Although she and her family were subsequently driven out of Montgomery by harassment, difficulty in finding work and death threats, she maintained her commitment to equality for the rest of her life in her new home in Detroit,” Smith recounted. “History rewarded her with the title: Mother of The Civil Rights Movement.

“Once vilified for civil disobedience, she was later recognized as the recipient of the nation’s highest awards: the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. This gentle seamstress stood on principle for right and proved that sometimes one person can make a difference even if they have to stand up by sitting down.”

Jay Wolf, pastor of First Baptist Church in Montgomery who has been involved in an interracial pastors’ group for seven years, said Parks was “motivated by her faith in Jesus Christ. She destroyed barriers and built bridges of reconciliation. Her Christian model is worthy of our emulation.”

Toward that end, Wolf and other pastors in the “John 17” interracial group, reflecting Jesus’ prayer for unity in the Gospel of John’s 17th chapter, have organized “The ONE Movement,” to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the bus boycott.

The campaign already has distributed more than 10,000 black and white bracelets signifying a commitment to racial reconciliation and it will distribute throughout the city 10,000 4-foot by 2-foot crosses with a black hand and a white hand joined together in the center of the cross.

Also among the campaign’s initiatives during the coming year marking the bus boycott’s 50th anniversary: black and white churches sharing meals together to build relationships. First Baptist, a church that closed its doors to blacks in the 1960s, already has shared Wednesday evening meals with three local black congregations. Now, instead of the doors being locked, Wolf said, “the hinges have been blown off.”

“Our prayer has been that in the same way Rosa Parks translated her moment into the civil rights movement, we are praying that our moment will become God’s movement,” Wolf said. “Our goal is racial reconciliation, because reconciliation ushers in revival,” the pastor said, citing Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17 “so the world may believe.”

Also responding to Baptist Press’ requests for comment on Rosa Parks’ life were:

— Rick Lance, state missionary/executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, who described Parks as “a towering figure during the Civil Rights period of American history. She represents the sacrifice of seemingly ordinary people who did extraordinary deeds in the name of justice and liberty. Her simple act of courage became the spark which lit the fire of the Civil Rights movement. Behind the iconic leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. stands the enormous contribution and influence of Rosa Parks. She never sought fame or recognition; nonetheless, her name is synonymous with all which is good in the quest for freedom and individual rights. People in Alabama and in the U.S., as well as individuals all around the world, join her family in mourning her passing.”

— Bob Terry, editor of The Alabama Baptist newsjournal, who noted, “In the providence of God, He used an unassuming woman named Rosa Parks as the catalyst to force Alabamians and all the people of the South to face the negative side of our culture. It was her courage that caused the whole nation to reexamine and renew its commitment to the belief that all people are created equal. She became the symbol of strength and dignity standing against the evils of discrimination, privilege and entitlement. Her faith in God and the message of churches in the black community reminded us that God created all people in His image. Her life caused Christians to face the gap between confession and practice. Her experience changed culture and society in Alabama. We are better because of her.”

— Mark Croston, current president of the National African American Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of East End Baptist Church in Suffolk, Va., who said, “God used Rosa Parks as a catalyst for justice. By sitting in silence, she fulfilled the Christian role of being the salt of the earth, and we are all indebted to her for her life and work.”

— Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission who was instrumental in the SBC’s 1995 racial reconciliation resolution, who said, “Rosa Parks was a great woman who was committed to uncovering wrong and doing right. She said her act of civil disobedience was simply a result of being tired of the unfair treatment of black Americans. Rosa Parks stated it was her faith in God that gave her the strength and courage to persevere in a culture that denied basic human rights to African Americans. Throughout her life, she demonstrated a quiet and dignified strength in standing for justice and equal rights for all Americans.

“She will be forever remembered as a pioneer in the struggle for civil rights. Her efforts, combined with those of many other Americans, black and white, led to full citizenship for millions of African Americans and began a needed transformation of our nation…. Mrs. Parks’ resistance to the unfair treatment of black Americans did not begin in 1955; she was put off a city bus in 1943 because she boarded that bus through the front door, not the back door where blacks were supposed to enter the vehicle. I am grateful for her indomitable spirit in the struggle for freedom and justice and for her unflagging dedication in calling our nation to close out the ugly era of racial segregation and to heed the biblical truth expressly stated in our nation’s Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. All Americans owe Mrs. Parks and other civil rights pioneers a great debt for their courage, standing against the evils of segregation and making it possible for us to live in a society committed to racial reconciliation and justice.”

The bus in which Parks took her stance has been restored and is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.