WASHINGTON — Rosa Parks is famous for her 1955 refusal to give up her seat on a city bus in Alabama to a white man, but there’s plenty about the rest of her experiences that she deliberately withheld from her family.
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While Parks and her husband, Raymond, were childless, her brother, the late Sylvester McCauley, had 13 children. They decided Parks’ nieces and nephews didn’t need to know the horrible details surrounding her civil rights activism, said Rhea McCauley, Parks’ niece.
“They didn’t talk about the lynchings and the Jim Crow laws,” said McCauley, 61, of Orlando, Fla. “They didn’t talk about that stuff to us kids. Everyone wanted to forget about it and sweep it under the rug.”
Parks’ descendants now have a chance to be first-hand witnesses as their late matriarch makes more history, this time becoming the first black woman to be honored with a full-length statue in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. The statue of Parks joins a bust of another black woman, abolitionist Sojourner Truth, which sits in the Capitol Visitors Center.
President Barack Obama, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner were among the dignitaries who took part in the unveiling Wednesday. McCauley said more than 50 of Parks’ relatives traveled to Washington for the ceremony.
This morning, we celebrate a seamstress, slight in stature but mighty in courage,” President Obama said. “She defied the odds, and she defied injustice. She lived a life of activism, but also a life of dignity and grace. And in a single moment, with the simplest of gestures, she helped change America — and change the world.”
In a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus in segregated Montgomery, Ala. She was arrested, touching off a bus boycott that stretched over a year.
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Jeanne Theoharis, author of the new biography “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” said Parks was very much a full-fledged civil rights activist, yet her contributions have not been treated like those of other movement leaders, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Rosa Parks is typically honored as a woman of courage, but that honor focuses on the one act she made on the bus on Dec. 5, 1955,” said Theoharis, a political science professor at Brooklyn College-City University of New York.
“That courage, that night was the product of decades of political work before that and continued … decades after” in Detroit, she said.
Parks died Oct. 24, 2005, at age 92. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor on Feb. 4, which would have been her 100th birthday.
Parks was raised by her mother and grandparents who taught her that part of being respected was to demand respect, said Theoharis, who spent six years researching and writing the Parks biography.
She was an educated woman who recalled seeing her grandfather sitting on the porch steps with a gun during the height of white violence against blacks in post-World War I Alabama.
After she married Raymond Parks, she joined him in his work in trying to help nine young black men, ages 12 to 19, who were accused of raping two white women in 1931. The nine were later convicted by an all-white jury in Scottsboro, Ala., part of a long legal odyssey for the so-called Scottsboro Boys.
In the 1940s, Parks joined the NAACP and was elected secretary of its Montgomery, Ala., branch, working with civil rights activist Edgar Nixon to fight barriers to voting for blacks and investigate sexual violence against women, Theoharis said.
Just five months before refusing to give up her seat, Parks attended Highlander Folk School, which trained community organizers on issues of poverty but had begun turning its attention to civil rights.
After the bus boycott, Parks and her husband lost their jobs and were threatened. They left for Detroit, where Parks was an activist against the war in Vietnam and worked on poverty, housing and racial justice issues, Theoharis said.
Theoharis said that while she considers the 9-foot-statue of Parks in the Capitol an “incredible honor” for Parks, “I worry about putting this history in the past when the actual Rosa Parks was working on and calling on us to continue to work on racial injustice.”
Parks has been honored previously in Washington with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999, both during the Clinton administration.
But McCauley said the Statuary Hall honor is different.
“The medal you could take it, put it on a mantel,” McCauley said. “But her being in the hall itself is permanent and children will be able to tour the (Capitol) and look up and see my aunt’s face.”