Monday, October 24, 2005

RIP, Rosa Parks

Aw, damn, Rosa Parks has died, at 92.

In May 2004, Rob, Todd, Sue and I went on our whirlwind trip through the South. We met up in New Orleans, the first time I'd ever been to the Big Easy. We spent a day bopping around Bourbon Street, then started driving. We drove through Louisiana, Alabama (Montgomery, Mobile, Birmingham), Mississippi (Jackson, Tupelo), Tennessee (Memphis), Arkansa (Little Rock) and even peeked into Florida (Pensacola).

I had brought only two guidebooks along -- Jane and Michael Stern's Roadfood, which we used to find restaurants, and The Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement, which we used to find museums and things to do.

Believe it or not, one of my favorite cities on the trip was Montgomery, and one of my favorite attractions on the trip was the Rosa Parks Museum. It's right on the downtown corner across from where her bus stopped when she refused to give up her seat, and it's one of the best museums I've ever seen.

You step inside the museum, and there's an old city bus from that era parked inside. They announce that you're going to see a reenactment of what happened, and you think "oh no, they're going to get some overdramatic junior college types to recite lines." But no. The windows of the bus become like movie screens, and the bus, before your very eyes, comes to life. Different windows brighten up with images at different times. You see people getting on and off the bus, you see the harsh driver ordering people to the back, you see Rosa Parks not moving. You see other people on the bus muttering about her.

You see her sitting alone, staring out the window, at the movie poster in the window of the theater across the street, maybe like Jesus in the Garden, wishing her ordeal was already over. It's truly riveting.

When you walk through the rest of the museum, it's as if you're progressing through the Civil Rights Movement and specifically the Montgomery Bus Boycott as it happened. We visited three civil-rights museums on our South trip, but perhaps because this one had such a narrow focus, it was by far the best. We left there and went to Martin Luther King's church, the beautiful Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and took a photo of the jolting intersection of two streets, one named for Rosa Parks and the other for Jefferson Davis.

And in Montgomery, and in the museum especially, Rosa Parks was spoken of with a gentle awe of an almost-saint. It was hard to believe that she was still living, the woman who had been through all of this, that she could come here and stand in a museum all about her, stand on a street named for her, walk into schools and libraries named in her honor.

So many of the legends of the Civil Rights movement died in their era, so many cut down violently, and too soon. JFK, RFK, MLK, Emmett Till, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, the list goes on.

Rosa Parks must have feared for her life, probably that day on the bus, certainly during the boycott, and probably for years afterwards. Yet she survived, living into her 90s, survived to see her story told, again and again. We've lost her now, but not really. Not really at all.


Anonymous said...

That was very beautiful.

And for the record, Tupelo is in MS, not TN.

Christopher Largen said...

Thank you for those comments. Rosa Parks proved the seemingly inconsequential actions of one person can have historical import for everyone.