I don't have a TV, so it was Brandon who tipped me off that Julian Bond was one of the speakers at the Capital Rotunda, while Rosa Parks was lying in state. As usual, Bond is excellent—giving a nuanced treatment of Parks' life and exploding the myth that the nonviolent movement and those who advocated self-defense were somehow separate, in binary opposition. Democracy Now! has Bond's eulogy, as well as the remarks from Reverend Grainger Browning Jr., Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Dorothy Height, Johnnie Carr, Oprah Winfrey, Cicely Tyson, and Bruce Gordon, all of which are worth reading. Here is Julian Bond's tribute to Rosa Parks:
We are gathered here to say goodbye and well done to Rosa Louise McCauley Parks. She leaves us as she lived her life with honor and dignity. She was daughter, sister, wife, aunt and mother to the Movement. But she was more than that. She leaves us just short of the 50th anniversary of the day she showed the world you can stand up for your rights by sitting down. Her actions produced a movement and introduced America to a new leader. Dr. King said she was anchored to that seat by the accumulated indignities of days gone by and the boundless aspirations of generations yet to come.
Now, she wasn't the first to refuse to surrender to Montgomery's apartheid. There had been Claudette Colvin, there had been Mary Louise Smith and countless others before her, those who believed they had rights just like any other citizen. But Rosa Parks was the first person to plead not guilty; for her, breaking Alabama law was obeying the Constitution. It was defending justice. She was tired, alright. She was tired of mistreatment. She was tired of second class citizenship. But, you know, she didn't want to be known as the bus woman. She was much, much more than that.
A historian writes, “Although Martin Luther King played crucial role in transforming a local boycott into a social justice movement, he was, himself, transformed by a movement he did not initiate.” In Montgomery, the boycott owed its success to what a historian calls the self-reliant NAACP stalwarts who acted on their own before King could lead. Rosa Parks was first among those NAACP stalwarts. She had been active with the NAACP for more than a decade before the boycott began. When it began, she was secretary to the Alabama NAACP state conference. She was secretary to the Montgomery branch of the NAACP. She was advisor to the youth council of the NAACP. She was secretary to the Alabama Voters League. But she was more than that.
She was secretary to the Montgomery branch of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the pioneering black union, led nationally by A. Philip Randolph and locally by ED Nixon. She writes in her biography that Mr. Nixon once told her, “Women don't belong nowhere but in the kitchen.” She said, “Mr. Nixon, what about me?” He said, “You're a good secretary, and I need one.” But she was more than that.
She became such an icon in American history and popular culture that the Neville Brothers immortalized her. They sang, "Thank you, Ms. Rosa. You were the spark that started our freedom movement. Thank you, Sister Rosa Parks." She was a long-time fighter for justice in Alabama. She and her husbands were strong defenders of the Scottsboro Boys. She fought for their freedom. She was active in the NAACP. But she was more than that.
Nine years ago she delivered the eulogy at the funeral for Robert Williams, much as we are eulogizing her today. For those of you who don't remember, Williams was the NAACP president in Monroe, North Carolina. He answered Klan attacks bullet for bullet. For his courage, the NAACP expelled him. The State of North Carolina made him a criminal. And he found safety and sanctuary in Cuba and China. He became an all but forgotten man. In 1996, an elderly Rosa Parks, the exemplar of nonviolence, stood in a church pulpit in Monroe, North Carolina. She was glad, she said, to finally attend the funeral of a heroic black leader who had escaped the assassin's bullet and lived a long and happy life. The work that he did, she said, should go down in history and never be forgotten.
It was my great pleasure to have known her over the years, giving me precious memories of the time we were together. I was once speaking in Detroit. And when the event was over, my host asked me if I would like to go out for a drink with Rosa Parks. Of course, I said yes. Ms. Parks had Coca-Cola. She turned to me, and she said, “Julian, what are you doing now? Where are you living?” I said, “Mrs. Parks, I've moved to Washington, D.C. I just saw you on TV. You and Jesse Jackson were picketing the Greyhound bus station in support of the striking bus drivers.” And I said, “You know, Mrs. Parks, I've just taken a job at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. It's too close and too expensive to fly there. The train isn't convenient. The best way to get there from D.C. is by bus.” And in her sweet, calm, quiet, respectful, gentle manner Ms. Parks said, “Don't you ride that bus!”
Now, Ms. Parks was much, much more than the bus woman. She was much, much more than that. Eldridge Cleaver famously remarked that when she sat down that December day in Montgomery 50 years ago, somewhere in the universe a gear in the machinery had shifted. Rosa Parks shifted the gears of the universe all her life. Now she belongs to the universe . Thank you, Sister Rosa. Thank you, Rosa Parks.