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Rosa Parks takes her seat in American history

Katherine Kennedy on the quiet dignity of a civil rights heroine

Katherine Kennedy is director of the Howard Thurman Center.

The recent passing of Rosa Parks at age 92 has filled me with great sadness. A woman of true principle, Parks exemplified courage and dignity from before the time she was thrust in the limelight that day on the bus in 1955 and through the decades that followed, as she became a face of the civil rights movement. In a day and time when true heroes are rare, I look back at Rosa Parks and see a woman who took on this role with no fanfare, accepting the highs and lows she experienced in the aftermath with honor and with her head held high.

Little did she know on December 1, 1955, when she boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on her way home from work, that she would instigate one of the most important movements in American history and become someone schoolchildren learn about for decades and perhaps centuries to come. Rosa Parks, weary of this lifelong unequal treatment and threatened with arrest, with quiet dignity made a personal decision to refuse to give up her seat that day, clearly defying the city’s segregation laws.

But more than that, what she did set a precedent and showed tremendous fortitude and passion—the passion and desire needed to start a chain of events that would begin to undo centuries of racism, brutality, mistreatment, and abuse in this country. It was a watershed moment in American history, one that paid dividends for me and millions of others, leading to untold opportunities and experiences that had been unimaginable to African-Americans, especially those in Parks’ Deep South home.

Rosa Parks was arrested, tried, and convicted of disorderly conduct and of violating a local ordinance. As a result, the entire black community boycotted public buses for 381 days. The Rosa Parks case became a landmark because it resulted in making all segregation laws unconstitutional.

Rightfully so, Rosa Parks is recognized as a catalyst of the civil rights movement. Through her nonviolent action, this quiet, respectable, hardworking, civic-minded, ordinary woman, with dignity and principles that would no longer allow her to accept such cruel injustice, demonstrated a new era of protest. In 1996, she was recognized for these contributions and awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an honor long overdue and so richly deserved. In my mind, Rosa Parks should never be forgotten for what she didn’t do that day in Montgomery—she didn’t give in.

Katherine Kennedy is the director the Howard Thurman Center, a cultural center whose goal is promoting leadership, pride, and unity among all students.