Monday, October 24, 2005

Rosa Parks, Civil Rights Heroine, is Dead At 92

Monday, October 24, 2005

When Rosa Parks refused to get up, an entire race of people began to stand up for their rights as human beings. It was a simple act that took extraordinary courage in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955. It was a place where black people had no rights white people had to respect. It was a time when racial discrimination was so common, many blacks never questioned it. At least not out loud.

But then came Rosa Parks. This mild-mannered black woman refused to give up her seat on a city bus so a white man could sit down.

Jim Crow laws had met their match. Parks' refusal infused 50,000 blacks in Montgomery with the will to walk rather than risk daily humiliation on the city's buses. This gentle giant, whose quietness belied her toughness, became the catalyst for a movement that broke the back of legalized segregation in the United States, gave rise to the astounding leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and inspired fighters for freedom and justice throughout the world. Parks, the beloved mother of the civil rights movement, is dead, a family member confirmed late Monday.

But already it's evident that her spirit lives in hundreds of thousands of people inspired by her unwavering commitment to work for a better world - a commitment that continued even after age and failing health slowed her in the 1990s. In death as in life, she touched the well known and the little known people of the world. 'Freedom is for all human beings' Parks' health had been declining since the late 1990s. She had stopped giving interviews by then and rarely appeared in public. When she did, she only smiled or spoke short, barely audible responses.

In one of her last lengthy interviews with the Detroit Free Press in 1995, she spoke of what she would like people to say about her after she passed away. "I'd like people to say I'm a person who always wanted to be free and wanted it not only for myself; freedom is for all human beings," she said during an interview from the pastor's study of St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church, a small congregation she joined upon moving to Detroit in 1957.

While it's known worldwide that her refusal to give up her bus seat sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, it's less well known that Parks had a long history of trying to make life better for black people. It was a desire embedded in her from childhood by her grandfather - her mother's father with whom she lived when she was growing up. He taught his children and grandchildren not to put up with mistreatment. "It was passed down almost in our genes," Parks wrote in her 1992 autobiography, "My Story." (Puffin, $5.99)

She recalled that when her grandfather was home, he kept a shotgun by his side in case the Ku Klux Klan dropped by. Of her grandfather, Sylvester Edwards, she wrote: "I remember that sometimes he would call white men by their first names, or their whole names, and not say, 'Mister.' How he survived doing all those kinds of things, and being so outspoken, talking that big talk, I don't know, unless it was because he was so white and so close to being one of them."

Her grandfather's father was a white plantation owner; his mother a slave housekeeper and seamstress. In recent years, Parks has relied heavily on a wheelchair and, according to court documents, suffers from dementia. The dementia was revealed as a result of two lawsuits filed on her behalf against the record company for the hip hop duo Outkast.

The 1999 lawsuit claims the record label BMG Entertainment violated her publicity and trademark rights for the 1998 song "Rosa Parks,' by using her name without her permission for commercial purposes. But some of her family members claim Parks was incapable of filing such a suit of her own accord.

They say it was an attempt by one of her attorneys, Gregory Reed and her longtime friend, Elaine Steele, to get money. Meanwhile, in October of this year a federal judge appointed former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer as her guardian ad litem-a temporary, court-appointed attorney to assure her interests in the lawsuits are fairly represented. Steele has had durable power of attorney over Parks and serves as her patient advocate, meaning she will make medical decisions upon incapacitating illness since 1998, according to documents obtained by the Free Press.

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