One of this nation-state’s true modern heroines was honored Monday with the issuance of an honorary stamp in her name. Hundreds gathered to commemorate and celebrate Rosa Parks on what would have been her 100th birthday, and the occasion was also used to unveil a postage stamp featuring her visage. The unveiling took place next to the Montgomery, Ala., bus from which she refused to move or be removed almost 60 years ago because of Jim Crow laws requiring separation of the races on public transport vehicles.
Parks died in 2005 as one of the seminal figures of the modern civil rights movement, having refused to give up her seat in the "colored" section of a Montgomery bus to a white man after the "white" section had filled up. Her defiance helped propel a new-in-town, 26-year-old Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into the leadership role of the ensuing black boycott of the city’s bus system. The success of that boycott brought King and the movement national recognition and legitimacy. As they say, the rest is history.
"This is being done in sight of the bus where future generations can sit in a seat where Rosa Parks sat and refused to budge and in a seat where the world was changed," Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said before he and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) unveiled the Rosa Parks Forever Stamp at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
There was the usual speechifying and music accompanying the festivities. Interestingly, officials cleared the vehicle so that Deputy Postmaster General Ronald Stroman, who once worked as a young lawyer in Conyers' Washington office while Parks worked at Conyers' Detroit office, to sit alone on the storied bus.
The US Postal Service launched this latest series of commemorative stamps on Jan. 1 with the Emancipation Proclamation Forever Stamp, which was issued at the National Archives in Washington. In August, the series will issue and dedicate a stamp in honor of the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington.
These stamps are currently only worth the price of an ordinary domestic first-class mail letter stamp, or 46 cents. That is a general practice. They are always first sold at the same price as a regular first-class mail stamp. Now, for all you philatelic enthusiasts, their worth will only grow with the passage of time.
The Parks stamp went on sale Monday at post offices nationwide and at The Henry Ford Museum. Collector David Malhalab was one of the first to buy the stamp. "Today is the Super Bowl or the championship game for stamp collectors," he said.
President Barack Obama issued his own proclamation, which Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) read during the ceremony:
"As we mark the 100th anniversary of Rosa Parks' birth, we celebrate the life of a genuine American hero and remind ourselves that although the principle of equality has always been self-evident, it has never been self-executing. [...] I call upon all Americans to observe this day with appropriate service, community and education programs to honor Rosa Parks' enduring legacy."
Yes, Rosa Parks was a genuine American hero, deserving of all the honors and accolades which we may muster. She was indeed a brave woman, a courageous woman.
But we must also remember that her act of defiance was staged, that she boarded that bus specifically to be arrested and help launch a boycott of the Montgomery bus system. That contradicts reports at the time, and throughout the ensuing decades, that she refused to give up her seat simply and only because she was tired and her feet hurt.
It is true that she was a seamstress. But she was also a secretary for the local NAACP, which purposely and specifically chose her to stage a lone “sit-down” strike and protest because she was considered an upstanding citizen whose character could not be impugned by the local white authorities. Others before her had done exactly the same thing but were not considered “middle class” enough to warrant the support of the local black leadership. Those folks had had previous run-ins with the law, whereas Parks had not.
But these facts do not take anything away from Rosa Parks nor in any way diminish her momentous, risky and history-making decision to submit to arrest and jailing on behalf of an entire people. She served as the spear point, the vanguard of a centuries-long buildup of a final, non-violent explosion of protest and promise.
She is, without doubt, the mother of the civil rights movement.