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University celebrates Rosa Parks

Justin Tardiff | Thursday, November 3, 2005

Notre Dame’s tribute to the late civil rights icon Rosa Parks was one that began and ended in song.

“Lead me, guide me along the way. For if you lead me, I cannot stray,” Chandra Johnson, associate director of campus ministry and director of cross-cultural ministry, sang at the opening of Wednesday’s remembrance service in LaFortune Ballroom.

Johnson, who spoke about Parks’ deep faith and commitment to serving God, led attendees in singing Notre Dame’s “Alma Mater” and “We Shall Overcome” at the conclusion of the service.

The service was held on the day Parks was laid to rest at Greater Grace Temple Church in Detroit, Mich., the city where she died Oct. 24 at age 92.

“The beautiful reality of this tribute is that students developed the concept, and they called us together … to honor the life of a woman they know affected their lives,” Johnson said. “You will make a difference because it’s the right thing to do. You must. We must.”

The service was held to celebrate Parks and tell the story of the “mother of the civil rights movement,” senior Ericka Smith, president of the Notre Dame chapter of the NAACP, said.

“History is only important in terms of how we choose to remember things,” she said. “Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat because she was tired … beyond that one day in 1965, Rosa Parks was still a remarkable woman.”

Parks, who became a symbol of the civil rights movement after she refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Ala., was a woman of faith – a woman once referred to as a “humming Christian light,” Johnson said.

“Rosa Parks once confessed ‘God is everything to me,'” Johnson said. “Mrs. Rosa Parks was lead by her God … living her faith as only a true woman of God can.”

At the time of the bus boycott, Parks was “emotionally and psychologically tired” and compelled to become a catalyst of social change, said junior Kyree Blackwell.

“We don’t see too many white heroes who were victims of abuse,” Richard Pierce, chair of the Africana Studies department, said. “[Parks’] lesson is not one of abstinence or fatigue … it was one of preparation,” Pierce said.

Parks was educated and was taught not just how to protest, but why to protest, Pierce said.

“It wasn’t the first time she had been kicked off that bus … by that very same driver,” he said. “The difference on Dec. 1 was that when she was kicked off the bus, people followed … she prepared herself and tried to prepare other for the freedom movement.”

Senior Rhea Boyd, chair of the minority affairs committee on the student senate, said Parks’ war was one waged against a color – black.

“It was also not so long ago that a seamstress decided to confront [racism],” Boyd said.

Parks’ war triggered a more-than-yearlong boycott of the bus system by blacks, organized by civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

“She had the courage to act not knowing if people could follow … the courage that you will have to manifest to act on behalf of your beliefs,” Pierce said.

Blackwell echoed Pierce’s point and said that Parks laid out an example of education and faith that should be followed.

As a woman who was more comfortable behind the scenes than in the front, Parks was active in more than just the civil rights movement, Pierce said.

Parks was a vocal opponent of apartheid in South Africa and formed the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development in Detroit, which offers career training to teenagers.

Donald Pope-Davis, associate vice president for the graduate school, called attendees to look around the room at “people who you perceive as being culturally different than yourself.”

“In this space and in this time, each and every one of you … make history,” Pope-Davis said.

Pope-Davis connected the time of Rosa Parks’ bus boycott to Notre Dame at that same time – where people of color and people of different genders “were not part of the current community.”

Because of Parks’ action, Pope-Davis said the community is called to lead, to take chances and to rise as people of faith to change the environment.

“In those moments when you think you cannot go on in this place … recognize that you occupy this space and time because you stand on the shoulders of those who came before you,” he said.

Pope-Davis challenged the community not only to look at Parks as part of history, but as a groundbreaker for those who followed her.

To do so, Boyd said one must use the classroom as the battlefield and engage in issues of equality and justice – just as Parks did when she brought the “struggle of a movement to the conscience of an individual,” she said.

“It is not sufficient simply to be present here and be counted among us,” he said. “The challenge is to do more than that … the challenge of history is not to forget it … stand up or sit down, as the case may be, and engage in the conversation.”