By Richard G. Carter
Many mature Black Milwaukeeans remember the days when the city was far from a bastion of liberty and justice for all. The days when open housing was a myth, the South Side was lily-white and a largely Black section of town was known as “the inner core.”
This was before Father John Groppi led open housing marches, before Attorney Lloyd Barbee stood tall, before activist John Givens led sits-ins to protest racism by inner-city merchant Fred Lins and before fiery Councilman Michael McGee Sr. called attention to the separate and unequal aspect of much of everyday life for minorities in Milwaukee.
Of course, things were much worse down South. But it all began to change on Dec. 1, 1955, shortly after Thanksgiving Day. That’s when Rosa Parks — a tiny, 43-year-old Black woman — refused to move to the back of a city bus in Montgomery, Ala.
Fast forward 30 years to Nov. 26, 1985, in the Detroit office of U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). The occasion was my remarkably candid, once-in-a-lifetime interview with the
legendary Parks, one of his aides. And I will never forget it.
I truly felt a face-to-face would be special with the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” marking the historic 30th anniversary of her courageous act. USA TODAY agreed and my interview appeared in that major newspaper Dec. 17, 1985 — and was the first piece nationally syndicated by the brand new Gannett News Service.
For years, I’d wanted to sit down with Parks to commemorate in print this great lady’s recollections of her pivotal protest which changed America. Although she’d told her story many times, I was not deterred. I’d always found it meaningful to discuss important events with important people who did important things on, or near, important dates.
Awaiting her arrival, I talked at length with the erudite Conyers, a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus. And I clearly remember we chuckled when Parks — with a twinkle in her eye — showed up, unflustered, a couple of hours late because of car trouble.
Then nearing 73, I was amazed at the delicate, soft-spoken, yet energetic Parks, and that she stayed busy in civil rights causes. Among her activities was assisting Black inner-city youth in self-development and making occasional appearances to lend moral support in the name of human rights. One of these was to be at the 1995 Million Man March in Washington, D.C., which was not easy at her age — 82 at that time.
As everyone has come to know, Parks was a seamstress on her way home from work when boarding a bus on that fateful day in 1955. With all seats in the rear “colored” section taken, she sat down in front — defying a dastardly tradition in the segregated South. After she refused to move, the White driver called police and she was arrested.
This led to a successful 381-day bus boycott that focused the nation’s attention on Montgomery and resulted in open seating on city buses. It also sparked the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s first foray into the nonviolent resistance that catapulted him to international prominence — and cost him his life 13 years later.
Alone with Parks, I derived a special satisfaction when she eagerly opened up to me. She lost no time telling me what she did almost 30 years to the day earlier — and why.
“Two reasons, really,” she said. “I’d always felt that the Jim Crow laws in the South were designed as a form of slavery to replace the actual slavery of the past, and this was one day I just didn’t feel like going along.
“Despite what you may have heard, I really was just plain tired,” she said. “I’d worked hard all day at the tailor shop and I didn’t feel it was right that I should have to stand in the colored section, which was the general practice, with empty seats up front.”
“When I said I wasn’t moving,” she continued, “the driver stopped the bus, called two policemen, and they arrested me. What made it more significant was that other Black passengers got off so I’d have a place to sit if I wanted to. But I stayed put.”
These shopworn practices, she added, were “humiliating and depressing.” She called the successful boycott “a victory in the truest sense of the word for right over wrong.”
Asked her initial impressions of Dr. King, who had only recently been assigned as pastor of a Baptist church in Montgomery, Parks said, “I felt he was destined to do great things. Dr. King had an elegance about him and a speaking style that let you know where you stood and inspired you to do the best you could.”
Tragically, Dr. King, whom I also was privileged to meet and interview on two occasions, was tragically taken from us. But Rosa Parks, charming and ladylike as can be, was still fighting the good fight for freedom and equality. “Our struggle will never go away,” she told me, “so I just have to keep on going on.”
Rosa Parks understood the realities of life. And like precious few other Americans who selflessly dedicate themselves to a cause, she did something about it. Her single, unparalleled act of courage on Dec. 1, 1955 on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., proves it. By sitting down in the White section, she was standing up for Black people everywhere.
When I heard of Parks’ passing on Oct. 24, 2005, at 92, memories of our morning together 20 years before, came rushing back. Without her, our country is a less dignified, less genteel place. Which is why I am thankful to her every Thanksgiving Day.
Milwaukee native Richard G. Carter is a freelance columnist