Our Week with Rosa Parks: Her Presence Remains a Gift in Our Hearts and Home
On this the 100th anniversary of the birth of Rosa Parks and in conjunction with the National Day of Courage, the U.S. Postal Service will host a pair of unveiling ceremonies for a stamp in her honor at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. But I want to turn your attention to a piece of Oakland history related to Rosa Parks.
Everyday history is made by people whose names remain unknown, as well as those who become eternal icons. In May of 1980, a woman who forever changed our country spent a week in our home. The East Bay Area Friends of Highlander Research and Education Center joined with founder Myles Horton to honor two of the Civil Rights Movements most courageous pioneers: Rosa Parks and Septima Clark. The event was held at His Lordships in Berkeley, California. On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Parks refused to obey bus driver James F. Blake's order that she give up her seat in the colored section to a white passenger, after the white section was full. Parks was not the first person to resist bus segregation. Others had taken similar steps in the twentieth century, including Irene Morgan in 1946, Sarah Louise Keys in 1955, and Claudette Colvin nine months before Parks.
Ms. Clark broke ground as a pioneering force in citizenship training and voter education. As a formidable educator based in South Carolina, she developed the literacy and citizenship workshops that played a key role in the drive for voting and civil rights for African Americans. The two women met at Highlander in 1955, a place where my own mother-in-law Margaret Lamont Landes, a long time peace and civil rights activist, also was trained there.
Founded in 1932, Highlander is a civil rights training school located on a 104-acre farm atop Bays Mountain, near New Market, Tennessee. Over the course of its history, Highlander has played important roles in many major political movements, including the Southern labor movements of the 1930s, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1940s-60s, and the Appalachian people's movements of the 1970s-80s and circling back to the labor movement. Through books in our home library, her teachers and my own work as a writer, Anyania knew about the role Ms. Parks played in changing the course of history.
Like millions of other African Americans, Mrs. Parks was tired of the racism, segregation and Jim Crow laws of the times. But that was a strategic kind of weariness. Through her commitment to freedom and training at Highlander Research and Education Center, her refusal to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955, spawned a movement. Parks took a seat in the section of a Montgomery city bus designated for whites. She was arrested, tried and fined for violating a city ordinance. Mrs. Parks, a seamstress, often had run-ins with bus drivers and had been evicted from buses. Getting on the front of the bus to pay her fare and then getting off going to the back door was so humiliating. There were times the driver simply shut the door and drove off. Her very conscious decision turned into an economically crippling, politically dynamic boycott and a major victory towards ending legal segregation in America. A three hundred and eighty two day bus boycott followed her morally correct and courageous act.
In the course of preparing for Ms. Parks' visit, she noted to members of the committee that hotels just didn't suit her spirit and she preferred the tradition extended through southern hospitality that included putting people up in your home. She then asked if I would mind if she could be our guest during her week-long stay in Oakland. She made only one request of us: that we keep her presence a secret. She and her long time friend Elaine Steele were eager to be in a place where they could relax, listen to music and eat great food without being disturbed. The disturbed part was my greatest concern for between the bullet blasting drug wars and the press, I was eager to bring them the greatest comforts that our home could provide, while maintaining the agreement.
Our modest home in the Fruitvale community of Oakland, California had served as a cultural center and refuge to many writers, filmmakers, artists and activists including Sweet Honey in the Rock, novelist Alice Walker and poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Although we'd never even met, when Rosa Parks walked through our front door, she instantly became family. She and my then almost seven-year-old daughter Anyania melted into one another's arms like a grandmother seeing her grandchild for the first time. That hug lasted a long time and would be repeated numerous times during the course of her visit. The next morning, Mrs. Parks was delighted to arrive at a breakfast table where fried apples, salmon croquettes and fresh squeezed orange juice were amongst the offerings.
As Anyania was about to take off for school, the button on her dress popped off. It was a jumper, made by my mother's own hands and filled with multi-ethnic images of children. Mrs. Parks asked if I had a sewing box, threaded the needle and sewed the button back on. I had a major case of the big weepies, as my spirit spilled over and I burst into tears that poured out of my eyes like water from a fountain.
Anyania was so good at keeping the secret. She did not tell a soul. I, on the other hand, wanted to blurt out to my family, friends and my students at Mills College "Guess who's sleeping in my bed?" Generally good at keeping secrets, this one was one of the most challenging I’ve ever had to hold on to. One evening, Mrs. Parks read selections from Eloise Greenfield's Honey, I love and other Poems to Anya. On another, she poured through our record collection and listened to everybody from Aretha Franklin and Sarah Vaughan to the Freedom Singers and Miles Davis. Her shyness vanished, as she got “way down inside the music, let it take her spin her around and make her.” We got to experience Mrs. Parks far beyond who she was as an historical icon. We watched her pop her fingers as she got down in the music, laugh at Anyania’s stories about her imaginary friend Autographer and share meals with us.
Back in the late nineties, a former a neighbor came by to pay a visit and started searching the scores of photographs hanging on the walls in our living room. She stopped, turned around and blurted out, "No that isn't." I instantly knew the photograph to which she was referring. Along with pictures of Fannie Lou Hamer, Eleanor Holmes Norton and Jim Forman hangs a very precious photograph of Rosa Parks surrounded by my then seven-year-old daughter and her playmate Kai Beard. Dottie was simply undone that in all the years she'd come into our home, she like so many others simply thought the woman sitting next to Anyania was her grandmother. A few weeks after she returned to Detroit, Ms. Parks sent Anyania an exquisite portrait of her painted by Paul Collins. That portrait now hangs in Anya's home, where the steady gaze of Ms. Parks shines on my grandchildren Maelia and Elijah every day. Anya got to hear history right from Ms. Parks’ lips and she shared history with her during each day of her visit. She told her about people like CD Nixon, Myles and Zetha Horton, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She spoke of what it was like to take a stand and sit down on the bus for the future of our people.
She made this little light of mine shine, shine, shine. Now when people enter our home, one of the first things we introduce them to is a photograph of Ms. Parks holding the hands of two girls who grew into womanhood shaped by the vision and courage of Rosa Parks.
A version of this piece was read into The Congressional Record by Congresswoman Barbara Lee in 2005.