Tuesday, October 25, 2005

From combined dispatches

DETROIT — Rosa Lee Parks, whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man sparked the modern civil rights movement, died yesterday. She was 92.

Shirley Kaigler, Mrs. Parks’ attorney, said she died while taking a nap early last night surrounded by a small group of friends and family members.

“She just fell asleep and didn’t wake up,” the lawyer said.

The cause of death was not immediately known. Mrs. Parks had fought a long battle with dementia.

Mrs. Parks was 42 when she committed an act of defiance in 1955 that was to change the course of American history and earn her the title “mother of the civil rights movement.”

The Montgomery, Ala., seamstress, an active member of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Montgomery Voters League, was riding on a city bus Dec. 1, 1955, when a white man demanded her seat.

Mrs. Parks refused, despite rules requiring blacks to yield their seats to whites. Two black Montgomery women had been arrested earlier that year on the same charge, but Mrs. Parks was jailed. She also was fined $14.

“We’re saddened by the passing of Rosa Parks,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson told CNN by telephone last night from South Africa. But her actions, he said, “will live forever.”

Mr. Jackson, who was 14 at the time of the bus boycott, said he had reached the age when the typical black person “had already begun to accept … the daily humiliations” of Jim Crow-era segregation.

“She sat down in order that others might stand up,” Mr. Jackson said, echoing reactions from other prominent black leaders last night.

“She stood up by sitting down. I’m only standing here because of her,” Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said.

The Rev. Al Sharpton called Mrs. Parks “a gentle woman whose single act changed the most powerful nation in the world.”

“One of the highlights of my life was meeting and getting to know her,” he said.

Speaking in 1992, Mrs. Parks said history too often maintains “that my feet were hurting and I didn’t know why I refused to stand up when they told me.”

“But the real reason of my not standing up was I felt that I had a right to be treated as any other passenger. We had endured that kind of treatment for too long,” she said.

Her arrest triggered a 381-day boycott of the bus system organized by a then little-known Baptist minister, Martin Luther King, who later earned the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

“At the time I was arrested, I had no idea it would turn into this,” Mrs. Parks said 30 years later. “It was just a day like any other day. The only thing that made it significant was that the masses of the people joined in.”

The Montgomery bus boycott, which came one year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark declaration that separate schools for blacks and whites were “inherently unequal,” marked the start of the modern civil rights movement.

The movement culminated in the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act, which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations.

After taking her public stand, Mrs. Parks had trouble finding work in Alabama. Amid threats and harassment, she and her husband, Raymond, moved to Detroit in 1957. She worked as an aide in the Detroit office of Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, from 1965 until retiring Sept. 30, 1988. Raymond Parks died in 1977.

Mrs. Parks said upon retiring from her job with Mr. Conyers that she wanted to devote more time to the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development.

The institute, incorporated in 1987, is devoted to developing leadership among Detroit’s young people and initiating them into the struggle for civil rights, but it has struggled financially since its inception.

Mrs. Parks’ later years were not without other difficult moments.

In 1994, Mrs. Parks’ home was invaded by a 28-year-old man who beat her and took $53. She was treated at a hospital and released. The man, Joseph Skipper, pleaded guilty, blaming the crime, one of a string of attacks on elderly women in the neighborhood, on his drug problem.

In 1996, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to civilians making outstanding contributions to American life. In 1999, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

She was among the civil rights leaders who addressed the Million Man March in October 1995.

The Rosa Parks Library and Museum opened in November 2000 in Montgomery. The museum features a 1955-era bus and a video that re-creates the conversation that preceded Mrs. Parks’ arrest.

“Are you going to stand up?” the bus driver asked.

“No,” Mrs. Parks answered.

“Well, by God, I’m going to have you arrested,” the driver said.

“You may do that.”

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