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A remembrance: Rosa’s ‘No’ echoes still
By George A. Ricker

“No” is such a simple word. Yet, even simple words can have profound consequences depending upon when and how they are used.

Rosa Parks was a woman who said “no” more than 50 years ago. I doubt she could have foreseen the ramifications of her use of the word when she said it. I'm sure she had no idea of the forces she would unleash. It was a powerful “no.”

Here's what happened.

It was Dec. 1, 1955, and Mrs. Parks was on her way home from work. A seamstress at the Montgomery Fair department store in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, she boarded a city bus for her regular trip at the end of the day. All 36 seats on the bus were quickly filled with 22 blacks — seated from the rear of the bus — and 14 whites. The white bus driver, seeing a white man standing in the front of the bus, ordered the four blacks seated just behind the last row of whites to relinquish their seats and move to the rear so that the white man could be seated and the passengers would still be segregated in accordance with state law.

After a momentary delay, three of the four blacks went to stand in the back of the bus. Rosa Parks, however, said “no.”

She was advised that if she persisted in her refusal, she would be arrested. Still, she said “no.”
Now, it was no small matter for any black to do such a thing in Montgomery in 1955. Indeed, there were many cities throughout the South where her action would have been no less remarkable.

For Rosa Parks’ “no” was sure to be viewed as a challenge to the entire, elaborate structure of legal segregation that had been constructed throughout the region since the end of the Civil War. That edifice already had been severely damaged by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka — handed down in May of 1954 — wherein segregated schools were held to be inherently unequal. And the white power structure was in no mood to see further erosion of the rules whereby a segregated society was maintained.

Her “no” was a direct threat to all the Jim Crow laws and, more importantly, to the mentality which conceived such laws — a mentality that said, and believed, that blacks were inferior creatures and had to be kept in their place, which place was wherever the white establishment wanted it to be.

That’s a heavy burden for a small word like “no,” but it was implicit in Rosa Parks use of the word nonetheless. And while she may not have known what would come of her refusal on that particular occasion, clearly she knew it would have serious ramifications. You see, besides being a seamstress, a housewife, and an active member of her church, Rosa Parks also was the secretary of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

It's interesting to note that when the young pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was appointed to the Executive Committee of the Montgomery Chapter of the NAACP, it was Rosa Parks who drafted the letter of appointment. The preacher's name, by the way, was King — Martin Luther King, Jr.

Her arrest — she was released that evening on bond — led directly to the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association and the Montgomery bus boycott, which is generally credited with being the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement. And it was the bus boycott, you may recall, that brought Martin Luther King, Jr., to the forefront of that movement.

Now, I don’t want to overstate my case. Would there have been a civil rights movement without Rosa Parks' arrest? Undoubtedly. Would King have played a dominant role in it? More than likely.

But history moves in fits and starts — it’s not at all the smooth progression we like to think it is — and there is no doubt at all that Rosa Parks’ refusal to follow the rules of a society that tried to treat her as something less than she was played an important role in the events that followed. Her “no” focused the energies of the black community in Montgomery on the work at hand and kept it focused, for the most part, through the difficult days that were to come.

To the bus driver, to the policemen who arrested her, Rosa Parks was a lawbreaker, a troublemaker, someone who didn’t “know” her place.

In my view, she was a heroine — a woman who faced a difficult moral choice and chose rightly even though the potential consequences for herself and her family could have been devastating.

Thomas Carlyle once wrote that history is the biography of great men. Well, alongside Mr. Carlyle’s “great men,” I suggest we make a place for the diminutive Mrs. Parks.

And, maybe, if we listen carefully, we can still hear her quiet “no” echoing through the decades and offering hope to all men and women everywhere who have ever had to face the stark choice between doing what is right and doing what is expedient.

“No” is such a simple word.

©2006 by George A. Ricker

A final note: Rosa Parks died on Oct. 24, 2005, in Detroit, Michigan, where she had lived since 1957. She was 92. A woman of singular courage, she was given a singular honor. When the mahogany casket containing her body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., she became the first woman to be so honored in our nation’s history. —GR

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