June 16, 1999



June 16, 1999

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 better future.

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 created equal.

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 America.

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 ago.

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.


Talking It Over: 1999

December 15, 1999

December 8, 1999

December 1, 1999

November 24, 1999

November 17, 1999

November 10, 1999

November 3, 1999

October 27, 1999

October 20, 1999

October 13, 1999

October 6, 1999

September 29, 1999

September 22, 1999

September 15, 1999

September 8, 1999

September 1, 1999

August 25, 1999

August 18, 1999

August 11, 1999

August 4, 1999

July 28, 1999

July 21, 1999

July 14, 1999

July 7, 1999

June 30, 1999

June 23, 1999

June 16, 1999

June 9, 1999

June 2, 1999

May 26, 1999

May 19, 1999

May 12, 1999

May 5, 1999

April 28, 1999

April 21, 1999

April 14, 1999

April 7, 1999

March 31, 1999

March 24, 1999

March 17, 1999

March 10, 1999

March 3, 1999

February 24, 1999

February 17, 1999

February 10, 1999

February 3, 1999

January 27, 1999

January 20, 1999

January 13, 1999

January 6, 1999

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