December 1, 1955

In this day and age, we think of December 1 as World AIDS Day. Even with the medical advances made in treating HIV and AIDS, it still impacts people around the globe, particularly people of color. In the height of the fear, ignorance and paranoia in the 1980s, I attended more funerals than I care to remember. Back then, if you were so diagnosed, it was considered an automatic death sentence–just get in the checkout line and wait to die.

I also remember celebrities who made a positive difference in the lives of those living with HIV/AIDS, who challenged those notions. Persons such as Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Diana, and Earvin “Magic” Johnson stood as advocates in the fight against this disease, and commendations are the least that can be given, not to mention the countless number of unsung heroes who continue to make a difference today.

However, I think of this day for a different reason, one that goes back to the events that unfolded on December 1, 1955.

In Montgomery, Alabama, segregation was the status quo. Ridership of public transportation was predominately Black, yet whites sat in the front of buses while Blacks sat in the rear. The middle section was a buffer zone; though Blacks could sit there, they had to give up their seat if the “whites only” section was filled and a white passenger wanted it. To add to the absurdity, Black passengers could not sit across the aisle from white passengers.

At the time, Rosa McCauley Parks was a 42-year-old seamstress and a secretary for the NAACP’s Montgomery chapter. On that day, with the “whites only” section full, the bus driver ordered her to give up her seat to a white man. For Rosa, with the memory of Emmett Till’s lynching on her mind, enough was enough, and she said, “No.”  She was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.

That event set into motion a year-long boycott of the Montgomery bus system, which was led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  On December 21, 1956, Rosa took her seat in the front of the bus. It set the stage for the modern-day civil rights movement, a movement that was ultimately for all people.  Though Rosa and her husband, Raymond Parks, moved to Detroit, her activism continued. Upon her death on October 24, 2005, her body lay in honor in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

It was one of the high points of my life, as well as humbling, to meet Rosa Parks in Atlanta in 1992. If I didn’t know who she was, to look at her one would see a petite, pleasant, unassuming woman who could easily be someone’s grandmother or great-grandmother. And yet, I looked into the face of a woman who changed the course of history. An ordinary woman who did something extraordinary.

To anyone who says that their vote won’t count or they can’t make a difference: even if you weren’t born yet, remember this day and remember Rosa Parks. She only said one word, and it brought about change. What more can you do to make a difference, wherever you are? We still have a long way to go, and we never know how our lives will touch others.

“The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” — Rosa Parks

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