Archive for Saturday, October 29, 2005

Parks’ death is wake-up call

October 29, 2005


Rosa Parks reminds me of my grandmother. Neither held an elective office. Both were born in 1913, the year the U.S. Constitution was changed to permit income tax collection.

Mother Parks was born in February; my grandmother, Lowney Hilliard Pitt, in October.

One woman's actions led to a galvanization of the civil rights movement. The other woman's actions were a part of a movement of personal responsibility that was the hallmark of Southern black communities in the 1950s and 1960s, back when we fought for equal education, the right to vote unfettered, to live where we chose. This was back in the days when we were required to excel in school, required to respect our elders, back in the days when we were proud.

Rosa Parks refused to move. My grandmother refused to go through the back doors of restaurants, refused to drink from fountains next to those marked "For Whites Only." She raised us to not accept second-class status.

In death, Mother Parks gives black Americans another opportunity to remember who we are and whose we are. Many of us are the descendants of slaves and we owe more to the continuing struggle that we now give.

Her death should be as much of a wake-up call for black Americans as her action nearly 50 years ago was a wake-up call for the civil rights movement. Her death should awaken us to our own potential as leaders, not victims; as masters of our own fates instead of former slaves still waiting for someone to save us.

Her death is not a candle extinguished, but a flame to be fanned.

Growing up in my grandmother's house, I thought I never would remember all of her rules. Sit up straight. Don't talk back. Do your homework. Attend Sunday school - every Sunday. Make me proud.

But I didn't have to remember them all; just one: Do as I do and as I say.

My grandmother would have been 92 on Oct. 5. She would have cried at Rosa Parks' death. But she also would have smiled as she said, "Job well done. Father, welcome her." And she would have wondered whether her death would make people pick their feet up higher.

"We're like the Israelites wandering through the desert for 40 years," said Christy Coleman, president of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the largest of its kind in America.

"When the Voting Rights Act was passed, everything was OK," she said the day after Mother Parks died. "And for 40 years, we've been wandering around trying to figure out who our leaders are and worshipping idols that haven't supported this community ever. It's time to leave the desert. It's time to get the sand out of your eyes, turn around, take a look and go back and claim the land and do what you need to do."

It's time for us to do what we need to do. My grandmother had many Rosa Parks moments throughout her life. She was Rosa Parks. I am Rosa Parks. We must all be willing to be Rosa Parks.

- Rochelle Riley is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Her e-mail address is


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