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My first contact with Rosa Parks came in 1988, when, advanced in age and rather frail, she crisscrossed the country to encourage people, especially young people, to become involved in civic life.
Out in Brooklyn, the Rev. Herbert Daughtry's House of the Lord Church was jam-packed for what was ostensibly a voter-registration drive, but was actually an opportunity for black folks to touch the hem of the garment of an icon.
"To have this person in flesh and blood and bone makes an indelible impression," Daughtry told me as he marveled at the applause and cheers and flashing cameras. Kids, in particular, were overwhelmed.
Parks, who died last week at the age of 92, had young people on her mind Thursday, Dec. 1, 1955, as she headed home on that now infamous Cleveland Avenue bus in Montgomery, Ala., after a long day of work as a seamstress. She was the adviser to the local NAACP youth council and needed to get out notices about an coming workshop to encourage youth to become more involved in the NAACP.
She'd been kicked off that bus 12 years before by the same driver, who insisted that she stand in the rear to make room for a white man to sit down. On Dec. 1 she kept her seat - and made history.
E.D. Nixon - the Pullman porter who really was the father of the civil rights movement, but chose Martin Luther King Jr. as its public face and voice - knew that Rosa Parks was the perfect person to become the face and voice of black frustrations. It took more than a year of litigation and boycotting of public buses, but Rosa Parks won.
King, about 20 years younger than Parks and a reluctant recruit to the cause, viewed her as a nonviolent gadfly "anchored to that seat by the accumulated indignities of days gone by and the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn."
After her death Monday, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., her employer for more than 20 years, observed that Parks was less interested in people seeing her as an icon and more in having them "understand their rights, and the Constitution that people are still trying to perfect today."
Back in 1988, Parks told me that she appreciated the accolades from kids, but "I want them to feel that they themselves can be inspired to do their very best in school or wherever they are."
She adored those who felt "they can improve their lives and help improve the lives of others by being aware of what has to be done."
What dismayed her was the need for such a massive voter registration drive all those years later. "It is hard to understand how it could be that those who have opportunities to do so seem to be indifferent and complacent about keeping and using the franchise and the right to vote freely and properly."
Honor her now with more than now-cliche lines like "When she sat down, we stood up." Take a stand. Make a difference.
ABOUT THE WRITER
E.R. Shipp is a columnist for the New York Daily News. She won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1996. Readers may write to her at the New York Daily News, 450 West 33rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10001; e-mail: email@example.com.
(c) 2005, New York Daily News Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.