Hill Remembers Parks as Hero, Aide

Posted October 25, 2005 at 6:29pm

When Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) won his first election to Congress in 1964, there was no doubt in his mind whom his first hire would be: the civil rights icon Rosa Parks, who died Monday at age 92.

After all, he recalled Tuesday, Parks, a longtime seamstress, had served as a loyal volunteer during his first campaign.

“She just showed up,” Conyers, who was then a young attorney, said. “Everyone was awestruck that a woman of this significance … would end up in my campaign. … The word began to get out across the city that she was supporting me. … In the primary, there were nearly a dozen people running for Congress. This became quite important.”

Parks’ support, in turn, was a key factor in influencing Martin Luther King Jr. to endorse Conyers, and ultimately in “determining his career as a Member of Congress.”

On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus in Montgomery, Ala., to a white man. It led to her arrest and helped spark the modern-day civil rights movement.

After Parks began full-time work in Conyers’ Detroit district office, “people were always coming in … to meet Rosa Parks. They had no Congressional business whatsoever but they wanted to talk to her. Students wanted to interview her,” the Wolverine State Congressman said.

Still, the diminutive Parks never lost her quiet, “stoic” mien or the “big smile on her face,” Conyers said. Over the years she served as receptionist, office manager and caseworker while continuing her national and international advocacy for civil rights. She also worked on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with him, Conyers noted.

Conyers was not the only Member to have a close personal relationship with Parks, however.

“She inspired me and my generation to stand up,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a leader in the civil rights movement who remembers meeting Parks in 1957 at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn. “You had this feeling, if Rosa Parks can do it, then I can do it. … We went back from Highlander and we started organizing.” By the fall of 1959, Lewis would initiate sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn.

“She was so gratified and proud when we started sitting in lunch counters and standing in theaters and going on Freedom Rides,” added Lewis, who would remain close to Parks throughout years of working on civil rights issues.

Meanwhile, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), who has lived all her life in Parks’ West Side Detroit neighborhood, first met the civil rights pioneer in the 1970s when, as a 19-year-old college student, Kilpatrick attended a speech Parks delivered at her university.

“She walked to the podium and for the next 40 minutes or so she spoke, with no notes I might add — just talked about who she was and how she came to be in Michigan and what she believed about the U.S., which she thought was the greatest country in the world. She thought everyone should have opportunity in this world, that we were all equal in the sight of God.”

“We always referred to her as mother Parks,” Kilpatrick added.

Conyers, Kilpatrick and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) are taking the lead in circulating a concurrent resolution honoring Parks’ life and legacy. They hoped to introduce the measure Tuesday night or today, Conyers said.

Conyers, who has organized an hour of special orders at the end of today to honor Parks, said there are few accolades she does not deserve. Through Tuesday afternoon, at least two House Republicans — Joe Pitts (Pa.) and Michael Burgess (Texas) — had taken to the floor to honor her.

“I’ve got a laundry list of things we’ll be talking about tonight and tomorrow, but they include a statue,” Conyers said. “They also include her body lying in state … [and] a memorial service either on Capitol Hill or at the National Cathedral.”

Lewis said he is also considering ways Congress can honor Parks, including a possible statue or other memorial in the Capitol Visitor Center. In 1999, Parks was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal.

“It is something that I would be interested in doing in coordination and consultation with my colleagues,” said Lewis, who brought a pair of photographs of Parks to his Cannon Building office Tuesday morning to remember her. “I think we should find a fitting and proper way to salute her. … She was not just the mother of the modern-day civil rights movement. She was one of the mothers of the new America.”

A concurrent resolution recognizing this December’s 50th anniversary of Parks’ refusal to give up her seat, which the House approved last month, is currently pending in the Senate. And bill sponsors are hoping Congress this week will take up legislation, backed by the entire Michigan delegation and already introduced in the House and Senate, to rename Detroit’s Federal Homeland Security Office the “Rosa Parks Federal Building.”

As for Parks’ legacy, Kilpatrick said it would live on through her admirers’ lives and work.

On Monday night, after receiving news of Parks’ death, Kilpatrick drove over to Parks’ home to spend time with her family. “We were talking about Mrs. Parks and what she did and that we must continue to carry on her works,” Kilpatrick recalled, her voice wavering slightly. “She is in a safer, stronger place. We have extra protection in heaven to watch over us.”