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OUR WEEK WITH ROSA PARKS
The following essay is reprinted with the permission of Daphne Muse--writer, social commentator, and Director of the Women's Leadership Institute at Mills College.
Our Week with Rosa Parks
Her Presence Remains a Gift in Our Hearts and Homes
By Daphne Muse
Everyday, history is made by people whose names remain unknown as well as those who become eternal icons. In May of 1980, a woman who forever changed our country spent a week in our home. The East Bay Area Friends of Highlander Research and Education Center joined with founder Myles Horton to honor two of the Civil Rights Movements most courageous pioneers: Rosa Parks and Septima Clark. Clark broke ground as a pioneering force in citizenship training and voter education. The two women met at Highlander in 1955, a place where my own mother-in-law Margaret Landes was trained during the 1930s.
Founded in 1932, Highlander is a civil rights training school located on a 104-acre farm atop Bays Mountain, near New Market, Tennessee. Over the course of its history, Highlander has played important roles in many major political movements, including the Southern labor movements of the 1930s, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1940s-60s, and the Appalachian people's movements of the 1970s-80s. Through books in our home library, her teachers and my own work as a writer, Anyania knew about the role Ms. Parks played in changing the course of history.
Like millions of other African Americans, Mrs. Parks was tired of the racism, segregation and Jim Crow laws of the times. Through her commitment to freedom and training at Highlander Research and Education Center, her refusal to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955, spawned a movement. Parks took a seat in the section of a Montgomery city bus designated for whites. She was arrested, tried and fined for violating a city ordinance. Mrs. Parks, a seamstress, often had run-ins with bus drivers and had been evicted from buses. Getting on the front of the bus to pay her fare and then getting off going to the back door was so humiliating. There were times the driver simply shut the door and drove off. Her very conscious decision turned into an economically crippling, politically dynamic boycott and ended legal segregation in America. A three hundred and eighty two day bus boycott followed her morally correct and courageous act.
In the course of preparing for Ms. Parks' visit, she noted to members of the committee that hotels just didn't suit her spirit and she preferred the tradition extended through southern hospitality that included putting people up in your home. She then asked if I would mind if she could be our guest during her week long stay in Oakland. She made only one request of us: that we keep her presence a secret. She and her long time friend Elaine Steele were eager to be in a place where they could relax, listen to music and eat great food without being disturbed. The disturbed part was my greatest concern for between the bullet blasting drug wars and the press, I was concerned about how to maintain that part of the agreement.
Our modest home in the Fruitvale community of Oakland, California had served as a cultural center and refuge to many writers, filmmakers, artists and activists including Sweet Honey in the Rock, novelist Alice Walker and poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Although we'd never even met, when Rosa Parks walked through our front door, she instantly became family. She and my then almost seven-year-old daughter Anyania melted into one another's arms like a grandmother seeing her grandchild for the first time. The hug lasted a long time. The next morning, Mrs. Parks was delighted to arrive at a breakfast table where fried apples, salmon croquettes and fresh squeezed orange juice were amongst the offerings.
As Anyania was about to take off for school, the button on her dress popped off. It was a jumper, made by my mother's own hands and filled with multi-ethnic images of children. Ms. Parks asked if I had a sewing box, threaded the needle and sewed the button back on. My spirit spilled over and I just burst into tears.
Anyania was so good at keeping the secret. I, on the other hand, wanted to blurt out to my family, friends and students at Mills College "Guess who's sleeping in my bed?" One evening, she read poems from Eloise Greenfield's */Honey, I love and other Poems/* to Anya. On another, she poured through our record collection and listened to everybody from Aretha Franklin and Sarah Vaughan to the Freedom Singers and Miles Davis. Some of her shyness disappeared, as she got down in the music.
A few months ago, a former neighbor came by to pay a visit and started searching the scores of photographs hanging on the walls in our living room. She stopped, turned around and blurted out, "No that isn't." I instantly knew the photograph to which she was referring. Along with pictures of Fannie Lou Hamer, Eleanor Holmes Norton and Jim Forman hangs a very precious photograph of Rosa Parks surrounded by my then seven-year-old daughter and her playmate Kai Beard. Dottie was simply undone that in all the years she'd come into our home, she like so many others simply thought the woman sitting next to Anyania was her grandmother. A few weeks after she returned to Detroit, Ms. Parks sent Anyania an exquisite portrait of her painted by Paul Collins. That portrait now hangs in Anya's home in Brentwood, California where my grandchildren Maelia and Elijah live, read and play everyday.