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FIRST-PERSON: Rosa Parks, a profile in courage

McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–Hear the word “courage,” and what comes to mind? White crosses covering Arlington National Cemetery? A firefighter entering a burning building? A single mother laboring at two jobs to provide for her family?

Courage comes packaged in a variety of forms and performs on a myriad of stages. In a very real sense, courage is in the eye of the beholder.

For those who view freedom and equality as priceless ideals, courage is personified by a petite black woman whose award-winning performance occurred almost 50 years ago. And, though she died recently, her performance lives on.

Rosa Parks, the catalyst for the civil rights movement, died at her home in Detroit Oct. 24. She was 92 years old. Her courageous moment took place the afternoon of Dec. 1, 1955, on a city bus in Montgomery, Ala.

Montgomery’s Jim Crow laws for the public bus system were, at best, humiliating. Black riders were required to pay their fare to the driver, exit and re-board through the bus’s rear door — that is, if the bus driver let them on at all.

“[M]any times, even if you did that [paid the fare], you might not get on the bus at all,” Parks recalled. “They’d shut the door, drive off, and leave you standing there.”

In 1943, Parks was even forced off a bus because she entered through the front door and not the rear.

Although 75 percent of passengers were black, the front four rows of seats were always reserved for whites. Behind these seats was a middle section that blacks could use only if there was no white demand. However, if just one white passenger needed a seat in the middle row, all the blacks in that section had to move.

In December 1955, at the end of a day’s work as a seamstress at the Montgomery Fair department store, Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus. She took a seat in the first row of the “colored section.”

After Parks was seated, the driver demanded that she and three other blacks move so that a lone white man could sit. Three of them complied, but Rosa Parks refused.

Recalling the incident for a public television series on the civil rights movement, Parks said, “When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’”

When the bus driver told her he would call the police if she would not give up her seat, Parks replied simply, “You may do that.”

In her autobiography, “My Story,” Parks wrote: “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired that I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

For Rosa Parks, being asked again to give up her seat on the bus was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

For the civil rights movement it was the tipping point — the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point, the point when everyday things reach epidemic proportions.

Like Parks, blacks all over Montgomery –- all over the South, all over America — were tired of giving in to unjust laws.

Parks was arrested on a Thursday. The ensuing Monday the Montgomery bus boycott began. It lasted 381 days and resulted in the desegregation of the bus system. Eventually, Parks’ case resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that segregated bus service was unconstitutional.

On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks became the spark that ignited the torch of the civil rights movement.

“At the time I was arrested I had no idea it would turn into this,” Parks said decades after the incident. “It was just a day like any other. The only thing that made it significant was the masses of people that joined in.”

I cannot imagine the courage it took to ignore the bus driver’s demand. At the time blacks were intimidated, beaten and killed simply because of their skin color.

I cannot comprehend the courage it took to challenge the institutionalized racism of the South. Parks and her husband lost their jobs and received death threats due to her actions.

While I may not be able truly to fathom it, I can marvel and be inspired by Parks’ courageous action.

“Courage is contagious,” Billy Graham once said. “When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened.”

Through the eyes of this beholder, not only does Rosa Parks epitomize the famed evangelist’s statement, she also personifies courage.
Kelly Boggs is pastor of the Portland-area Valley Baptist Church in McMinnville, Ore. His column appears each Friday in Baptist Press.

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  • Kelly Boggs