DETROIT – For half a century, Rosa Parks’ story circled the globe, lending courage to countless people facing injustice. She died in Detroit on Monday, but her story will live on for generations as proof of a single person’s capacity to change history.

From Great Britain on Tuesday, the powerful BBC World Service retold Parks’ story to radio listeners around the world in 11 concise words: “She refused to give up her seat to a white man.”

It did not even seem necessary to repeat the familiar, ugly details about segregation in the American South in 1955, when Parks refused to budge on a bus in Alabama.

People around the world already seem to know her story.

It’s what prompted Stacy Hajduk, a mother from San Antonio, to telephone the Detroit Free Press on Tuesday to express the love her 8-year-old son Ethan has for Parks.

“He said if he could meet anybody, he’d want to meet her,” Hajduk said. Even though the incident on the bus took place 50 years ago, it sent a fresh jolt through Ethan when he heard it at school.

“She should be able to sit wherever she wants to,” the boy told his mom. “Everybody should be able to sit where they want to.”

The vivid nature of her story is what prompts Dan Scripsema, a teacher at Jenison High School near Grand Rapids, Mich., to include a special emphasis each year on the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. His lessons include rearranging students’ chairs to simulate a bus in the 1950s.

“If history comes alive,” Scripsema said, “hopefully they can understand why we don’t want to make these same mistakes again.”

The writer Maya Angelou described the high drama of Parks’ story as a kind of “wonderful and profound poetry.”

“She confronted a way of life that had obtained forever. She said this must stop here. This stops with me, no matter what happens to me,” Angelou said Tuesday from her office in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Parks’ bravery seemed larger than life, almost like a hero in an ancient legend, Angelou said.

“I was so amazed when I finally met her in the late 1950s, because I had determined that Mrs. Rosa Parks had to be an Amazon, walking tall and brandishing a sword with a scowl on her face. Instead, she turned out to be tiny and not only petite, but delicate and gentle.”

The Rev. Charles Adams of Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit, who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the South, said Parks “was the perfect person to be the mother of the civil rights movement and to give birth to the public ministry of Martin Luther King Jr.”

Her story of the confrontation on the bus is so concise that it echoes powerfully in each generation, Adams said.

One way that Adams retells her story, he said, sounds like this: “She was strategically placed at the point where hate and love came face to face – and love won the battle, because it would not surrender to hate, and therefore lovingly vanquished hate.”

Another way he retells it: “She simply and lovingly persuaded America to be what it claimed to be in its own Constitution by affirming its guarantee of liberty and justice for all.”

The epic quality of Parks’ courage has shaped lives far beyond the African-American community.

Najah Bazzy of Canton, Mich., an advocate for diversity in health care who has emerged as one of the most prominent Muslim women in the United States, said she talks about Parks in lectures nationwide.

“I refer to her often,” Bazzy said. “She was important in the civil rights movement, but she was more than that. She also was a very strong woman and gives inspiration to all women, but she was more than that.

“There are some people who transcend culture, race and gender and arrive at a universal place where everyone can understand their story. By saying no that day and risking her life, she elevated the dignity of all humanity.”

Detroit Catholic Cardinal Adam Maida called Parks “a prophet – a common instrument of God inviting us and challenging us to a new vision of solidarity, equality and justice.”

In these ways, Parks’ story is stitched into a timeless tapestry of courageous people who have enlarged humanity’s vision of itself. In the ancient world, there were stories of wise Odysseus and his Trojan horse, Moses leading people out of slavery and David’s defeat of Goliath.

In the modern era, there was the story of nonviolent resistance in the 1940s by Indian activist Mohandas Gandhi, who became known as Mahatma, or Great Soul, and whose story inspired Parks and King.

Rabbi James Rudin, national adviser to the American Jewish Committee on interfaith issues, said, “I’m one of so many people whose lives were changed by Rosa Parks. Her story was so important, because until we began to hear about what she and King had done, the only example of nonviolent resistance we knew about was Gandhi.”

The year Parks was arrested, Rudin was a 21-year-old seminary student in New York. His studies took five years and he served as a chaplain in the U.S. Army after that.

“But in 1964, I went to Mississippi to work on a voting-rights drive,” Rudin said Tuesday from his home in Florida. “It was such a scary time.” Memories of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination were fresh and attacks on Jews as well as African-Americans in the South had been brutal. “But Rosa Parks’ story helped to guide me. Her courage had become an icon for so many.”

To this day, “these stories of courage move the human soul,” Rabbi Daniel Syme of Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township, Mich., said. “She is part of a long saga of individual courage that grows through human history.

“People often ask, “What difference can I make?’ They’ll say, “I’m only one person,”‘ Syme said. “Then any rabbi or minister or priest or poet with an ounce of knowledge of our history will say in answer: “Well, let me tell you some stories.’ And one of those we tell is the story of Rosa Parks.”

(c) 2005, Detroit Free Press.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


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