November 16, 2005
Dear Ms. Parks,
I meant to write earlier. I even considered coming down to see you at the museum a few weeks ago but couldn’t quite muster up the nerve. I felt–still feel–odd approaching you. What could I possibly say? What legitimate claim could I make on your attention? How could I explain how you, a person I’d never met and had almost nothing in common with, touched me? Why I got teary-eyed when I heard you’d died, and then again when I heard you were going to lay in honor in the Capitol building?
My reaction surprised me. I’ve always thought it was cool that you’d ended up here in Detroit–you were one of the good things about this city that needs more of them–but it’s not as if I’d ever met you or even seen you around town. I saw your bus at the Henry Ford, and wondered how you felt about having it there, about the fact that one could purchase a Mold-a-Rama miniature of it. I guess there’s nothing inherently disrespectful about injection molded plastic figures. Maybe they could even be a positive force; one of them may make its way into the hands of a child who will ask about it and thus hear about who you were and what you did.
When I first learned about you, I didn’t get it. There I was, trying to be a good girl and follow all the rules and the people who made or at least enforced those rules were praising some lady who was famous for not following a rule. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white man when the bus driver told her to and got arrested, the teacher said. She’s a heroine, the teacher said. What? That didn’t make any sense. People who got arrested were criminals and criminals were bad; I knew that. So what was the teacher was saying didn’t make sense. I should not do what I’m told? Some rules really are meant to be broken? I was confused.
After I’d grown up some and learned more about how the world works, I was better able to appreciate what you’d done, to see how regular person could make a choice that would spur many other people to act together and change an unjust system. Thank you for being brave enough to make that choice. Because of you, others were spurred to activism, not just in Montgomery in the 1950s but in places and times far removed from where and when you took a stand by remaining seated. For instance, there’s a man who credits you with inspiring him to found a training program for public interest advocates.
The world is a better place for having had you in it, and I wish that there were more people like you. I wish I were more like you. Knowing that you were 42 years old when you made your big move, I think there’s still hope for me to do some good in the world before I leave it. Thank you for setting an example of the difference one woman can make.