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Rosa Parks

NEA pays its respects to a civil rights legend.

By Alain Jehlen

Reg Weaver was 16 years old, Dennis Van Roekel was eight, Lily Eskelsen was a seven-month-old baby, and Rosa Parks was 42 on December 1, 1955, when she decided not to give a White man her seat on the bus.

Half a century later, the three NEA officers and other NEA leaders attended a moving memorial service in honor of the gutsy secretary of the Montgomery, Alabama, NAACP who helped launch the Civil Rights Movement.

"It was very emotional, being truly a part of history," said NEA President Weaver afterward. "By sitting down, Rosa Parks allowed someone like me to stand up for children and for public education." 

Weaver recalled that in 1955, Parks' arrest was not at first recognized as a major development. He has more vivid memories of another event earlier that year: the murder and mutilation of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy, for allegedly whistling at a White woman. Till's mother decided to have an open casket funeral so the world could see the gruesome act. Weaver thinks the murder may have helped to spur Parks to make her decision, and the city's Black residents to launch their boycott.

The American South in 1955 was ripe for change. The previous year, the Supreme Court had overruled the doctrine of "separate but equal" schools. But on the ground, very little had yet changed. It was becoming clear that a decision from above would not be enough. It would take a massive push from below. Rosa Parks' decision began that push. As weeks of boycott stretched into months, the nation turned to watch Montgomery.

NEA Vice President Van Roekel said Parks' memorial service was all about the power of one individual who decided this was something she would do, without waiting for anyone else. But he pointed out that the Montgomery victory was won not by one person, but by hundreds of Black workers who, like Parks, each decided to take action.

"They didn't write flyers or give fiery speeches," said Van Roekel. "They didn't have money or a PR firm. But they got up long before the crack of dawn, took care of their families first, and then walked to work, rain or shine. Buses would go by, but for 381 days, no one rode. They changed the world."

NEA Secretary-Treasurer Lily Eskelsen, though too young in 1955 to remember anything about the boycott, remembers encountering segregation as she grew up, and as a sixth-grade teacher near Salt Lake City, Utah, she made sure her students learned about it.

"The textbook had two paragraphs on the Civil Rights Movement, so I used excerpts from the Eyes On The Prize television series and made my own unit. There were no Black children at our school and my students had only seen discrimination on television. But I told them I remembered being in Georgia when I was five, in kindergarten, and the gas stations had three bathrooms: men, women, and colored—I was just learning to read the signs.

"To a child, it didn't seem strange, it was just the way it is. It isn't until you get older that you start questioning whether there are bad laws, and what's your responsibility if there are. Rosa Parks said your responsibility is to not obey a bad law because there's a bigger law, the Constitution. We talked about all that.

"You might think that old black-and-white video would be boring to kids, but they were sitting on the edge of their seats with their mouths hanging open."

The Rosa Parks service was held on October 31 in Washington, D.C., at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church just across the street from NEA headquarters. Hundreds of people who couldn't get in stood outside and listened for more than two hours to loudspeakers, or came into the NEA building, where the service was broadcast on large television monitors. NEA also arranged for hotel rooms for Parks' family nearby, and sponsored a breakfast for them in Montgomery, where the first of three services commemorating Parks' life was held.

Photo: AP Images

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