Douglas Brinkley: Rosa Parks, Reluctant Hero

Roundup: Talking About History

GAZING ACROSS the Detroit River at the skyline of Windsor, Ontario, one late afternoon in 1999, Rosa Parks reminisced about her heroes. ''That's where Harriet Tubman found freedom," she said, pointing to Canada. ''Just down the river was one of the most popular crossings for escaped slaves fleeing America." She mused at the fact that Tubman -- the driving force of the Underground Railroad -- had died one month after her birth in Tuskegee, Ala. It was as if the freedom baton had been passed onto her. But unlike Tubman -- or the famed Wizards of Tuskegee, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver -- Parks was a reluctant, self-effacing hero. Although her act of civil disobedience on Dec. 1, 1955, is in the history books, she never sought center stage. ''Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer," she sheepishly said, ''now they were really something. I just did what I had to do."

What made Parks such a sustainable hero was her bedrock humility. She was always a warrior for the cause, never letting her ego overtake the Holy Spirit. During the Montgomery bus boycott (1955-1956), she literally gave up her starring role to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. She didn't force herself onto the crowded podium at the March on Washington in 1963, although she complained that women weren't given a more significant role. Later, just a week before his assassination in 1965, she was counseling firebrand Malcolm X on the serenity found through spirituality. Since the deaths of ''Brother Martin and Malcom," she served as an assistant to Democratic Congressman John Conyers of Michigan. Yet whenever these powerful men were in the same room with Sister Rosa, they deferred to her, as if she were a prophet or a saint. It was her humbleness that disarmed the mighty, her insistence that pure love could unseat raw power, that made people jump to their feet and applaud her mere presence.

A case in point is Nelson Mandela of South Africa, five years Parks's junior. Just four months following his release from spending 27 years in the Robben Island prison, Mandela visited the United States. He was feted in Washington, D.C., and New York. But he insisted on going to blue-collared Detroit, where his hero Rosa Parks lived....

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