Legacy of Rosa Parks Endures Despite Lawsuit

Growing up in Detroit, Susan McCauley and her 12 siblings would sometimes boast about their famous aunt, proudly telling their friends that they were America's "civil rights family."

Their aunt herself rarely talked about what happened on that bleak December day in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955.

But their father recounted the details, how his sister refused to surrender her seat on a bus to a white man, even though the segregation laws required it, even though the driver yelled at her, even though she knew she would be arrested, jailed, and possibly even lynched.

Rosa Parks' (search) simple act of courage spawned a movement, inspired a generation, and changed a nation.

But it wasn't until she was older that McCauley began to put her aunt's action into perspective. At family gatherings she would ponder Auntie Rosa, with her gentle smile, her glasses and braided hair, always so self-deprecating, always so demure. And she would marvel.

This was the woman whose arrest had inspired the yearlong bus boycott in Montgomery, when thousands of blacks walked to work rather than sit in the "colored" section of the buses. This was the woman who helped introduce the world to a dynamic young preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. (search) This was the quiet crusader, whose life was so viciously threatened that she had to flee with her family to Detroit.

Yet these days, when McCauley talks to her own children about Parks, her three teenagers ask:

Why is she suing OutKast (search)?

On the phone from her home in Atlanta, McCauley sighed.

"Auntie Rosa devoted her whole life to taking stands against the indignities and sufferings of her race," she said. "That is how she should be remembered, not some money-grubbing old lady who sued a rock band."

At 91, Parks has dementia and cannot explain for herself why she became embroiled in two suits involving the hip-hop duo OutKast and their record company, BMG.

At issue is a song about the entertainment industry that has no connection to Parks, though it is titled "Rosa Parks" and its chorus goes, "Ah, ha, hush that fuss, everybody move to the back of the bus."

Lawyers for Parks argue her name was wrongly used; they seek a total of $5 billion.

Parks has no children. Her 13 nieces and nephews, her closest relatives, argue that Parks, who lived a humble, frugal life, would never had sued for money. If she was upset, they say, she would have made a point of saying so.

They accuse her lawyer, Gregory Reed and her caretaker, Elaine Steele, of exploiting their ailing aunt for private gain. Reed denies this; Steele declined to comment.

A judge has named Dennis Archer, a former Detroit mayor and former Michigan Supreme Court justice, to act as Parks' guardian, asking him to "stand in her shoes."

But it is hard to imagine anyone standing in the shoes of a woman whose near mythological status has long eclipsed the reality of who she is and what she accomplished.

Parks herself has chafed at the way she has often been portrayed: A 42-year-old seamstress so exhausted after a day stitching hems at the Montgomery Fair Department Store that she simply refused to budge.

"The only tired I was," she wrote in her autobiography, "was tired of giving in."

In fact, Parks had been actively involved in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, despite the fact that, in the seething racial tensions of the time, anyone who supported desegregation risked reprisals from the Ku Klux Klan.

Parks was aware of the risks. Raised partly by her grandparents in Pine Level, Ala., she had vivid memories of her grandfather sleeping in his rocking chair with a shotgun by his side.

But Parks knew other realities, too.

As a child, she was enrolled in a private school in Montgomery where, in addition to English and science, white teachers taught black students a philosophy of self worth and equality. Later she worked at a military base where segregation was banned.

"I could ride on an integrated trolley on the base," she wrote. "But when I left the base I had to ride home on a segregated bus."

Quietly, she began to engage in small acts of resistance.

She walked up stairs rather than use elevators marked "Colored." She led youth members of the NAACP to Montgomery's main library, even though they knew they would be directed to the poorly stocked branches for blacks across town. Twelve years before her arrest, she was thrown off a bus for refusing to enter through the back, as blacks were required to do.

Parks never caused a fuss. She simply carried herself with such quiet, almost spiritual dignity that even today friends and family talk about her "glow."

She married Raymond Parks, a barber, drawn to him, she wrote, by "the fact he didn't seem to have that meek attitude, what we called an Uncle Tom attitude toward white people." He was also deeply involved in the NAACP. There were secret nightly meetings and endless reports of lynchings and other acts of racial violence. As secretary of the NAACP Parks would read them all.

She found solace in the Bible and the African Methodist Episcopal church.

But she found a new way of thinking at the Highlander Folk school in the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee, where blacks and whites lived side by side, attending workshops on civil rights and civil disobedience. Parks spent 10 days there in the summer of 1955, returning to Montgomery with a new sense of resolve.

Months earlier, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin had caused a sensation by getting arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. Colvin's fiery language and the fact she was pregnant made the NAACP reluctantly decide not to press a lawsuit.

Still, as Fred Grey, a young NAACP lawyer who ate lunch with Parks nearly every day, recalled, "It was on all our minds, why shouldn't we all be taking such a stand."

At dusk on Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus and took that stand.

King described Parks' act as "an individual expression of a timeless longing for human dignity and freedom." In a single moment, King wrote, she had become "a victim of both the forces of history and the forces of destiny."

In a sense Parks has been a victim of both forces ever since.

The NAACP finally had the perfect plaintiff. The civil rights movement soon found its perfect leader in King, who led the bus boycott that would paralyze the city for 381 days.

Bus segregation was ruled unconstitutional in 1956. Other triumphs followed, eventually leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But while King and others were catapulted to fame, Parks remained in the shadows. She continued to go to marches and rallies, and was present for King's "I have a dream" speech in Washington in 1963, though she was upset by the secondary role assigned to women.

But Parks never stopped working, always juggling low-paying jobs to support her mother and husband. It was at one such job, working as a seamstress in a tiny sewing factory in Detroit, that she met 16-year-old Elaine Steele, who became Parks' constant companion and confidante.

Historian Douglas Brinkley, Parks' biographer, suggested the two women bonded partly because Parks identified with Steele's more militant view of black nationalism. As much as Parks admired King, she never believed that nonviolence was the only solution. She was horrified when King didn't defend himself at a convention in 1962 after a white man repeatedly punched him in the face. "Dr. King used to say that black people should receive brutality with love, and I believed that this was a goal to work for," Parks wrote. "But I couldn't reach that point in my mind at all." In fact, she professed admiration for Malcolm X after he had renounced the Nation of Islam and its virulent anti-white philosophy.

By the mid-1960s, Brinkley wrote, "the gentle Christian woman had become a tough-minded freethinking feminist, who had grown impatient with gradualist approaches."

Her family says Parks never lost that inner steeliness, despite her gentle manner. Even as children her nieces remember their aunt's no-nonsense house, where duty and manners were expected, along with regular attendance at church.

The same decorum was remembered in the Detroit office of Democratic Rep. John Conyers, where Parks worked for 22 years. Dutifully she would pose for pictures when visitors trooped in to see her, though she was never comfortable with the spotlight.

"I understand I am a symbol," she wrote. "But I have never gotten used to being a public person."

After retiring in 1988, Parks threw herself into the Raymond and Rosa Parks Institute for Self-Development, a nonprofit organization to help young blacks. Accompanied by Steele, she began making more appearances, traveling the country and abroad. She met Nelson Mandela and Pope John Paul II. President Clinton awarded her the Congressional Gold medal.

Gamely, Parks accepted the honors. Privately, though she was troubled by the importance attributed to her one act, pointing out that many had suffered far more.

To her family, Parks was never a celebrity, just a beloved aunt, who delighted in their huge annual family reunions, who was always reading and inquiring about current affairs, always willing to look at life in a fresh way. In her 80s she became a vegetarian, took up yoga, learned the computer.

"She wasn't the mother of the civil rights movement to me," said Susan McCauley. "She was the woman I wanted to become."

But her family grew increasingly concerned about Parks' hectic schedule and her dependence on Steele, especially after Raymond Parks died. In 1994, after Parks moved into a gated high rise apartment, her family said it grew difficult to arrange visits.

Rhea McCauley said the last time she saw her aunt was in 2002, the same year she unsuccessfully petitioned a court to become Parks' guardian. Parks was frail and tearful, McCauley said, and didn't say much.

"Auntie Rosa is a national treasure, but she is also an elderly woman who needs her family and whose last days should not be spent tied up in a lawsuit," McCauley said.

Steele declined to be interviewed. But Reed, Parks' lawyer, bristled at accusations she was being exploited.

The lawsuit, he said, is consistent with other stands Parks has taken, such as boycotting the NAACP Image awards in 2002 to protest a film in which a character makes jokes about her status as a black icon.

"It would be a greater damage to her legacy not to bring that suit," Reed said, adding that lawyers were trying to settle the case, scheduled for trial next summer.

Settlement or not, for some old civil rights warriors, there is a tragic poignancy to her plight.

John Lewis still remembers the pride he felt as a 15-year-old sharecropper's son in Troy, Ala., when he heard about Parks' arrest. Emboldened, he gathered his brothers and cousins and marched to the local public library. They were turned away, as they knew they would be.

"But at least we felt we were taking a stand, just like Mrs. Parks," said Lewis, a Democratic congressman from Georgia.

"Rosa Parks sat down and inspired a whole generation to stand up," Lewis said. "It would be tragic if a new generation lost that message because it was muddied by a lawsuit."

In Montgomery, 93-year-old Johnnie Mae Carr ponders the legacy of her childhood friend.

It still seems like yesterday, Carr said, that they sat in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and listened to the new minister, King, speak, and she whispered to her friend, "He is something else."

It still seems like yesterday, all the meetings and marches and speeches, and the powerful sense that a force had been unleashed that nothing could turn back.

"Who knows what Rosa thinks about the lawsuit or if she ever heard the song," Carr said. "But at least, she has the right to go to court and be treated fairly.

"We didn't have those rights 50 years ago."