Civil rights matriarchs - Word&Way

Civil rights matriarchs

By Bill Webb
Word&Way Editor

In a little more than three months, the world lost the matriarchs of a civil rights revolution in America.

Bill WebbRosa Parks, 92, who almost 50 years earlier kept her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in a stand for justice, died Oct. 25 at her home in Detroit. Coretta Scott King, who was 78 when she died at a holistic health clinic in Rosarita Beach, Mexico, on Jan. 31 will not only be remembered as the widow of Martin Luther King Jr. but as a champion of civil rights herself.

Parks was a 42-year-old seamstress and housekeeper on her way home from work at a downtown department store when she defied a local segregationist law and was arrested for disorderly conduct. The bus driver ordered her to give up her seat to white passengers as they boarded the bus. She refused.

Her refusal was not a spur-of-the-moment decision that grew out of careless obstinacy. It was a move she and others had anticipated at the appropriate time. Rosa Parks intuitively knew the time was right for a person like herself to test the law, to face the humiliation of arrest and — as it turned out — to spark a much-overdue revolution against one of the most diabolical forms of injustice.

Christian leaders described Parks' act as consistent with her faith in God. "Just as Jesus broke laws in the name of the higher law of God, so too did Rosa Parks," observed Peter Gathje, a professor at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tenn.

"God sat with me as I remained calm and determined not to be treated with less dignity than any other citizen of Montgomery," Parks herself recalled in a newspaper interview in 2000. The act sparked the Montgomery bus boycott that lasted more than a year and involved more than 40,000 black residents.

Parks herself remained a community activist; for the past several decades she had promoted educational efforts in Detroit.

The bus boycott she sparked was the first major protest of the civil rights movement, and it catapulted Martin Luther King Jr., 26, the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, into the forefront of that movement. His philosophy of nonviolence was the hallmark of the movement from that time forward.

Coretta Scott King was a force during her husband's rise to prominence. She was his behind-the-scenes advisor and confidante. She and their children weathered the abuse and risked the danger associated with her husband's crusade. As the civil rights movement demanded more and more of him, Coretta King was the stabilizing influence in their family.

It would have been understandable if Coretta had quietly backed away from the movement after her husband's assassination in 1968. Thankfully, she did not shrink from the challenge but demonstrated her own resolve as a champion for justice.

She devoted herself to carrying on his legacy — actually it was their legacy — by establishing the King Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta. Her presence within the ongoing civil rights movement lent grace and strength, as well as perspective to those who might have been tempted to abandon the philosophy of nonviolence espoused by her mate.

Both Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King distinguished themselves by their ongoing interest in matters of significance to both current and future generations, and both appealed to their personal faith for direction and support. Their deaths mark the passing of an era that must be remembered by people of every race and culture. The world needs more people with the courage and steadfastness of these women.