We speak with Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan), who worked with Parks for over a decade. Conyers remembers Parks’ life and speaks about the possibility of a state funeral and a national “Rosa Parks day.” [includes rush transcript]
- Rep. John Conyers, (D-Michigan)
AMY GOODMAN: Civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks has died at the age of 92. It was 50 years ago this December that she refused to give up her seat to a white man aboard a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was arrested and convicted of violating the state’s segregation laws. Her act of resistance led to a 13-month boycott of the Montgomery bus system that would spark the modern-day Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks later lived in Detroit for more than half her life. Earlier this morning, we reached Congress Member John Conyers in Detroit. He worked with Rosa Parks for more than a decade. I asked him to talk about Rosa Parks’s life.
JOHN CONYERS: Sure, I can tell you about Rosa Parks. I began meeting her many years ago in the Civil Rights Movement. And I had met her before she came to Detroit, because I was invited down South to different places with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And I was happy to be in her company. I had no idea at the time that she would end up in Detroit. It so happened that there was some family here, and when she couldn’t get a job — she was a pariah in Alabama, Montgomery. She couldn’t find work, so she decided to relocate. And she and her husband, Raymond, decided to come to Detroit.
And so, it so happened that she was also coming to my campaign meetings, as I was a candidate for Congress at that time. And to our great delight, she was very quiet, but she would come and she would help us. And I said that when I won this seat, the first thing I would do is offer her a position on my staff, if she would accept. And to my honor and delight, she did accept. And we were happy to have her in my original staff.
AMY GOODMAN: What are the adjectives you would use to describe Rosa Parks?
JOHN CONYERS: She was a humble person. That’s the first term, I think, that would come to mind. Also, that she was very resolute. She happened to be a religious person, as well, and she took her Bible and the teachings quite seriously. But she also believed in Constitutional government, and she believed that a civil rights movement was going to be necessary. And I think that that combination of considerations led her to one day, coming home from work, decide that she would not obey the segregation laws of Alabama and would face arrest, incarceration, trial, imprisonment as a result of it. And she had deep religious convictions, but she also believed very strongly that the Constitutional requirement of equality and freedom was something that had to be initiated and continued.
And she earned her title as Mother of the Civil Rights Movement. There wasn’t any question about that, because out of the bus boycott came this young new minister from Boston named Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., 26 years old. And that really not only sparked the 380-day bus boycott that then led to a federal suit that struck down desegregation, not only in the buses, but it was interpreted to extend to all forms of desegregation, of which there was plenty. And it wasn’t all in the South. There was desegregation in the North, as well.
So it was out of that turbulence and it was — it was a very violent era. I had just returned from Birmingham, Alabama, and I was taken by the school in which Reverend Shuttlesworth was beaten. He was protesting segregation and he was severely beaten. He had to go to the hospital. Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, who incidentally is one of the few last original members of the Dr. King organization with Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young that came together to put the new Civil Rights Movement on the map and to really get it moving in all the directions that it eventually took, was right there. And you’re sort of stunned when you go by a place in the city that’s now so relatively quiet and say, 'Good night, that's where that incident took place.’
And I can’t help but marvel at the fact that Rosa Parks essentially had a saint-like quality. And I use that term advisedly, because she never raised her voice. She was not an emotional person in terms of expressing anger or rage or vindictiveness. But she was resolute. And this was an unusual set of circumstances for a person who, as the Movement went on and the successes built up, she became more and more recognized as the person who had, without probably intending to initiate it, a resurrection of the Civil Rights Movement.
And it seems to me that her passing is probably the end of an era, because Rosa Parks for so long was celebrated in many instances all over the world. She was constantly traveling, receiving awards. She received the Congressional Medal of Honor. She was honored in Washington. And, as a matter of fact, one of my responsibilities this week is to meet with our federal officials, both in the Executive Branch and in the Congress, to determine what is befitting national response to the life and legacy of someone who dared to struggle to give her life to chart an unknown path which eventually made America much stronger, brought about the civil rights laws that were so desperately needed and gave many of us hope that through a people’s power, we would be able to make this Constitutional mandate of equality and justice something that was real and tangible in a country whose original coming together had agreed that the vile institution of enslavement would continue, even as we formed a new independent democratic nation.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Congress Member John Conyers, who worked with Rosa Parks for more than a decade. We’re speaking to him in Detroit, where Rosa Parks lived more than half of her life. Congress Member Conyers, would there be a state funeral for Rosa Parks?
JOHN CONYERS: I think that’s one of the options that are on the table. We’ll be meeting to consider how this should be done, and that’s an important consideration. There are a number of things that we can do, and I want to make sure that her home-going is properly observed, not just in the cities in which she lived, but by our national government, indeed, because she was certainly a national citizen. She was a citizen of her country, who held up her beliefs and fought for them in a way that reflected great courage on everyone that joined her.
AMY GOODMAN: What else could the government do? What are you considering?
JOHN CONYERS: We’re looking at a wide number of options. There could always be erected a statue in her behalf. There could be naming of federal installations or buildings after her. There has already started, before her passing, some that wanted a day in her honor, a holiday for her. Those are among the other things that might be considered.
AMY GOODMAN: A national holiday?
JOHN CONYERS: Yes, ma’am.
AMY GOODMAN: Like Martin Luther King Day, Rosa Parks day?
JOHN CONYERS: Yes, there are people that I’m sure have started it already, because I was approached about that a while back.
AMY GOODMAN: Congress Member Conyers, it’s often said Rosa Parks was simply a tired seamstress who sat down. But the fact is she was a longtime activist. It’s a story that she tells. Do you think it’s significant that that story be told?
JOHN CONYERS: Yes, it’s true that she had been one of the active leaders in the struggle against segregation. And, of course, she was well known and well respected. But the fact was that she had not planned this, and that it was because of her activity and her belief system, to me, that something may have told her on that day at that moment on that bus that she was going to do what she did.
AMY GOODMAN: Congress Member John Conyers, speaking to us from Detroit, worked with Rosa Parks for more than a decade. Rosa Parks died yesterday at her home at the age of 92. We’ll have more on her life in the days to come.