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Remembering Rosa Parks On Her 100th Birthday

Civil rights activist Rosa Parks would have been 100 years old today. NPR's Celeste Headlee talks with listeners about the first time they learned about Parks and what she signifies today.

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Transcript

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

But today's a special day as many people across the country are honoring the legacy of Rosa Parks who would've been 100 years old today. The Montgomery bus boycott that she set in motion lasted 381 days, and by the end of it, black residents of Montgomery, Alabama, could ride the buses as equals. Rosa Parks remembers the beginning of the movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED TAPE)

ROSA PARKS: Many times I had had problem with bus drivers, but this was the first time that people in Montgomery took enough notice of this incident to cooperate with each other and remain off the bus, and that attracted attention of the entire city, first of all, other places, the country and it just spread.

HEADLEE: And as we the head, 42,000 people participated in that bus boycott. The Montgomery Advertiser has collected stories from some of them which we'll hear in just a moment. But we also want to hear your story. What do you remember about the time of the bus boycotts? 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. Or you can just join the conversation on our website, go to npr.org and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We have this email here from Connecticut. Monica writes: For me, the legacy is learning the truth behind Rosa Parks' story on the bus that day. As a child in school, our black history lessons consisted of a one-day lecture that went from slavery to Martin Luther King. Now, there's always a mention of Rosa Parks and how she didn't give up her seat to a white passenger because she was tired from working all day. What I learned was that the story isn't factual at all. Some days before she ignited the bus boycott, she'd attended an event, where the plight of Emmett Till was discussed. This horrific story was on the minds of so many but it was that incident that caused her to stay in that seat. She was not tired, but sick and tired. It was a very dangerous action for a black woman and I'm grateful for her courage.

And here, this one from John in Watsonville, California. John writes: As a bus driver, I find what happened to Mrs. Parks appalling. I know it was a different time but I just can't conceive of demanding this of a passenger of any race. I try to keep this event in the mind of my university passengers by telling them Metro does not discriminate - everyone to the back of the bus. Some of them chuckle. We want to get your memories of the time of the bus boycott at 800-989-8255. But we also wanted to bring you some voices of people who are there in Montgomery, courtesy of The Montgomery Advertiser which has collected these stories. This is John Sawyer Jr. who arrived in Montgomery, straight from the navy and the bus boycott was already underway.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

JOHN SAWYER JR.: Instead of taking the bus, I walked. I would walk from Rosa Parks - what it is now - to Alabama State, and I could beat the bus from where I lived on Rosa Parks, which was one block north of a firehouse, over to Alabama State with no problems. I met with others that we would just walk together and talk about life and what we wanted to do, what we we're going to do and we knew where to walk and where not to walk, and we knew how to make time and be on time. There were certain areas we knew that we could not walk through where Lanier High School is. We could not walk through that area to even pass Lanier. We had to walk on the edges of a black community and a white community. If you walked through the white community and you were not working in that area, you were subject to be questioned, arrested and whatever. So we were very much aware of where we could go and where we could not.

HEADLEE: That was John Sawyer, Jr. remembering the Montgomery bus boycott on Rosa Parks' 100th birthday. Calling in right now from Houston, Texas is Joyce. Joyce, what do you remember from the time of the bus boycott?

JOYCE: Well, it gave us courage because I was one of the first nine black kids to desegregate the schools in Texas in 1965, and we rode the city buses to get to school. We didn't have a high school bus yet, of course. There were just nine of us coming from different parts of town. And you had to have courage. We had not attacks per se; we had one under - attack later. But we were very threatened by going into a white area when we were not welcome to do that.

They were maids and gardeners and people who worked in those areas just like the gentleman who just spoke, but these kids coming to school, we were looked at as the enemy. And even our school books, the word nigger and nigress were in the books, so the teachers would freely say things like that.

HEADLEE: So you can understand quite personally what Rosa Parks may have been feeling when she wouldn't give up that seat.

JOYCE: Well, it took tremendous courage for her by herself because we were aware when we caught the city buses of who else did we have around us. And we'd often sit in the back of the bus with the maids to make sure that we were surrounded by people who looked like us, because folks who knew we were desegregating that school were not kind to us at all, not even bus drivers.

HEADLEE: That's Joyce. Thank you so much for your call. Joyce calling from Houston, Texas. I want to read this email here from Lisa in Golden, Colorado. Lisa writes: I was born a middle-class in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954, and I was raised by African-American females. Rosa Parks started a chain of events that touched my life daily and influenced my attitudes permanently. Because of Rosa Parks, I grew up with an awareness of bigotry and sensitivity to injustice.

I want to take another listen to one of the voices collected by the Montgomery Advertiser. Some people in Montgomery, black people, had cars of their own at the time, and they offered to drive car pools for people who normally had to rely on the buses. But even deciding to drive others could be dangerous. Reverend Mary Jo Smiley was one of those brave women who volunteered.

REVEREND MARY JO SMILEY: During that time I had a child and I would just wrap her up in the - in her blanket, and whoever sat up front would hold her. And I would take them to work and then pick them up later in the evening. One day we were going down Fairview, and they were working - you know, how they work down in the hole in the streets. And this truck driver - I was in the inside lane and he was on the outside lane. And we came to that hole and you can see the man in the hole and the truck driver nodded for me to go by. And he stopped.

And as I went to go by, he just shot out in front of me. Just by chance, the person held on to my baby, and I didn't hit the man down in the hole. But I, being the person I am, caught up with him and told him what I thought of him. When I delivered my passengers and returned home, I had just gotten in the house when the policeman rang my bell.

HEADLEE: So we want to get your remembrances as well. What do you remember from the time of the bus boycotts? Call us at 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. And right now we have Stuart(ph) from Athens, Ohio. Stuart, what do you remember?

STUART: I remember my grandfather being appalled by this. And when we went to a ballgame or any kind of a restroom, we never went to the white person's restrooms. We always went to the black person's restroom.

HEADLEE: You are white, Stuart? Do you mind me asking?

STUART: Yeah, I'm white. And I always found it, you know, I found my grandfather to be very friendly and, you know, he didn't - there was no - there was nothing different about those people to him, which made it nothing different to me and it is still not.

HEADLEE: That's Stuart calling from Athens, Ohio. We want to get your remembrances of a time when the Montgomery bus boycott began and Rosa Parks was arrested for remaining in her seat. What do you remember from that time? When did you first hear of it? What did you think? And we're also hearing to voices from - the Montgomery Advertiser has collected some of these stories from people who remember that time. If you want to give us a call with your memories: 800-989-8255.

But let's take a listen her to Thomas Gray. Montgomery's police force went to great lengths to try and stop the bus boycott. Here's Thomas Gray saying that the police would sometimes give tickets for running stop signs on foot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS GRAY: Oh, there were all sorts of things that went on to try to stop the boycott. Of course, people got all kinds of tickets that they didn't deserve, no question about that, running stop signs, all sorts of things. People started coming in from just everywhere; they dropped in on Montgomery.

HEADLEE: Again, your remembrances at 800-989-8255. This is Angela from Oklahoma City. Angela, what do you remember?

ANGELA: Hi. I'm a former reporter here in Oklahoma City, and I interviewed a woman who was 100 years old, and she told me this wonderful story about when the trolley, which was like a bus, went downtown. It would turn around at some point and head back up. And she said that when it would turn around, the bus driver would move the coloreds-only sign from the front to the back, or from the front, back to the front, depending how you look at it, because at that point it had turned around, obviously. So the back had change. And so the people...

HEADLEE: How interesting.

ANGELA: Do you see what I'm saying?

HEADLEE: Yeah, absolutely.

ANGELA: And what (unintelligible) my heart was, you know, this was a 100-year-old lady and she looked up at me and she said, you know, it just never felt right. It just never felt right. And I just thought, God bless you, you know, even then, you know, that was the mores of the day, but even to her she was like it just didn't feel right. And I hear - I heard a lot that from older people around here, was - and I don't know who thought this was a good idea.

HEADLEE: But did any of them mentioned what they thought of Rosa Parks and her decision to begin the boycott?

ANGELA: I'm sorry, that wasn't what I interviewed her about...

HEADLEE: Just about segregation.

ANGELA: ...in reference to the whole bus - or the idea that black people had to sit in the front or the back.

HEADLEE: That's Angela calling us from Oklahoma City. Thank you so much, Angela.

ANGELA: OK. Bye-bye.

HEADLEE: And you can call us as well with your remembrances of that time, call 800-989-8255. Many people writing about Rosa Parks on her 100th birthday, what would have been her 100th birthday today.

We have - there's a new book out called "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks." Let me read an excerpt of it here. Because Montgomery saw itself as a more cosmopolitan city, the author writes, than some of its Southern neighbors, signs or screens separating the black and white sections were no longer used. It was a matter of understanding, of what seats we may use and may not use, Parks explained, with the power of discretion, particularly over the middle seats, up to the driver.

The bus driver could move colored people anywhere he wanted on the bus, Nixon reiterated, because he was in - within his rights under a city ordinance. The arbitrariness of segregation, the power of that place it granted white people, is perhaps nowhere more evident than on that bus. That kind of echoes something that Angela said as well.

And we're taking your calls, your remembrances, of the time of the bus boycott. This is John calling from Spring Green, Wisconsin. John, are you there?

JOHN: Yes. Can you hear me?

HEADLEE: I can. What do you remember...

JOHN: OK. (Unintelligible) now can you hear me better?

HEADLEE: I can hear you.

JOHN: OK. Yeah. I was actually well aware of it. I grew up in Mobile, Alabama. And I actually marched in the Selma to Montgomery, Alabama march. I had a cross burned in my front yard, so yeah, I'm pretty familiar with it.

And the one thing that I want to say is my family was very active and my wife, my ex-wife, actually, whose father was an ex-United Methodist member, integrated his churches in 1962, was thrown out of the Methodist church. So there were lot of things down there going on. It's pretty complicated to understand, but if you don't - but I'm going to get hit one key point, OK?

HEADLEE: OK.

JOHN: I think the one thing that a lot of people have overlooked in this situation is when - I remember when Rosa got arrested. I remember the day she got arrested, a horrible situation. But (unintelligible) the one thing that really bothers me, there's not many people in this part of the country who realized there were people like me in the South, very liberal, very liberal, very pro-integration.

In the Selma to Montgomery march I think there was 18,000 people. And one thing we never hear about is that they estimate that half of that group were from the states of Alabama, states of Georgia, Florida, Tennessee. In other words, you never hear about the people in the South who took part in that, who fought this thing, who had to live with it every day. I remember white water fountains, black only, you know, restrooms - everything with segregated.

But you know, when you talk about these subjects, it's about time somebody steps and says a lot of people down - the people who changed this were not people from the North, it was people from the South. People like Bill Baxley, who was attorney general of the state of Alabama, who went back after he got elected and prosecuted all those people who had been free for 20 years. Governor Don Siegelman, who's now in prison, because they couldn't get him out of office. So next time you guys talk about it, realize a lot of people down the South gave their lives for this.

HEADLEE: Thank you.

JOHN: And I sound sort of emotional because it brings back a lot of horrible memories for me. But, you know...

HEADLEE: Yeah. It's clear it's still a passion for you.

JOHN: Let's just pray it never happens again.

HEADLEE: That's John calling from Springs - Spring Green, Wisconsin. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And on what would have been her 100th birthday we are remembering Rosa Parks and the bus boycott that she began. We're asking for your memories of that time. This is Michael in Shelbyville, Kentucky. Michael, what do you remember?

MICHAEL: Well, good afternoon, everybody. I remember when I was a child during that time period, and I had been raised on an old plantation that had been in the family many, many generations. And at the time of the boycott I was in Montgomery, and I remember getting on the bus with my family. And it's when - before the boycott, you know, as a child I always liked sitting in the back of the bus but wasn't allowed to. You know, mom and dad say no, no, no, you sit up here with us, and that's where the black people sit.

And - but I remember during the boycott, getting on the bus, and all of a sudden there were no - then for about a year there were no black people on the bus and I just got a big thrill out of being able to sit in the back.

But as I was becoming at that time in my life, I was becoming more and more aware of the social matters that were going around me, and it - and I had lot of questions and it just did not settle with me. And it was grossly unfair, grossly unfair. And you know, I grew up around seeing Klan signs and I know even as late as the '80s, when I was down in Montgomery, there was still a Klan contingent and there was even Klan on the police force at that time.

HEADLEE: Michael, thank you very much for your call - Shelbyville, Kentucky. Thank you very much for calling in. We have been collecting your remembrances of the time of the bus boycotts. You can still call us or email us also, 800-989-8255. The email address is: talk@npr.org. Thank you to everyone for your calls. If you want to hear more of the stories The Montgomery Advertiser compiled, you can find a link to that collection at our website. Got to npr.org, and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tomorrow, Neal Conan is back with a look at what it's like to live in a mixed status family. With immigration policy up for debate on Capitol Hill, families that have both legal residents and not legal residents. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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