Horace Cooper
Like Paul Simon's lament for Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to Rosa Parks, an authentic American hero who passed away this week. She was a model of virtue, a legend, one of TIME magazine's 100 Most Important People of the Century, a hero the likes of which we'll not see again soon.

Her path to glory had humble beginnings. She was an ordinary woman - a seamstress, in fact - who did the extraordinary. Born Rosa Lee McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama, she grew up on a farm with her Methodist grandparents. Today we remember her as the very image of serene dignity: Rosa Parks, the unassuming seamstress who galvanized the nation to the injustice of race-based discrimination when after a long day's work she refused to give up her seat to a white man.

But Rosa Parks was not the first black person in Montgomery to refuse to give up her seat; she was the first black person whose rights had been violated that the nascent civil rights movement was willing to stand behind. Many Americans may not realize that some nine months earlier a young woman named Claudette Colvin had also been arrested in Montgomery for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. Miss Colvin was charged with misconduct, resisting arrest and violating city and state segregation laws. The civil rights community initially thought she might be just the person to stand behind. But when reports came out that she was a teenager, pregnant by a married man and that during her arrest had allegedly uttered a stream of obscenities, leaders in the civil rights community decided that hers was not the case to rally around.

Subsequently when Mrs. Parks was arrested, the response was immediate and unequivocal. Fifty leaders of the civil rights community in Montgomery, led by a then relatively unknown minister Dr. Martin Luther King, declared that unlike Claudette Colvin, unwed and pregnant, "Mrs. Parks, on the other hand, was regarded as one of the finest citizens of Montgomery, not one of the finest Negro citizens but one of the finest citizens of Montgomery." A boycott was initiated which lasted for 382 days, until the local ordinance segregating African-Americans and whites on public buses was lifted. The success in Montgomery transformed Dr. King into a nationally known figure and triggered other bus boycotts, ultimately igniting a nationwide assault on the injustice of segregation.


Horace Cooper

Horace Cooper is a legal commentator and a Senior Fellow with the Institute for Liberty.