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Remembering Rosa Parks: 1913-2005

The mother of the Civil Rights Movement has died. Her dignified defiance in the face of segregation helped this nation understand the power of nonviolent protest to create a more just world.

Five years ago, Rosa Parks and Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), together launched the National Campaign for Tolerance.

More than 250,000 people have enlisted in that campaign, which mobilizes SPLC supporters and others into a community of activists. Those who join commit to work for the ideals of the Civil Rights Movement by adding their names to the Wall of Tolerance — the centerpiece of the Center's new Civil Rights Memorial Center. It was dedicated Sunday.

The next day, Mrs. Parks died. The world lost the woman known as the Mother of the Movement, an icon of civil rights, a symbol of the power of one person to change the world.

On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks entered history, not by standing up but by remaining seated. Returning home from work, Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on the segregated public bus in Montgomery, Ala.

Her act of dignified defiance prompted a 381-day boycott of Montgomery buses and helped launch a young Dr. Martin Luther King into the national spotlight.

"I had no idea when I refused to give up my seat on that Montgomery bus that my small action would help put an end to the segregation laws in the South," Parks wrote in her autobiography, Rosa Parks: My Story.

"Rosa Parks may have been quiet, but she was a fiercely committed activist," said Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "It's no accident that she didn't give up her seat that day, and it's no accident that she was the kind of person who could spark a revolution."

In 1989, Parks was one of several noted civil rights figures who spoke at the dedication of the Civil Rights Memorial, designed by Maya Lin. For several years, she brought inner city youth to the Memorial as part of an educational program she sponsored. A stroke in 2003 made it impossible for her to even consider attending this past weekend's dedication of the Civil Rights Memorial Center.

Parks also is the focus of one of the Center's most successful teaching kits, Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks, which has been sent free to more than 25,000 educators across the country.

Parks' story, through that kit, has not only deepened student understanding of the historic Civil Rights Movement but also has helped them bridge divides in their daily lives.

"'Mighty Times' bridged a gap between our Hispanic and black populations (at school)," wrote a middle school teacher from Texas. "During discussion (of the film), I noticed empathy, understanding and respect for blacks from Hispanics that I've never observed before."

A Wyoming teacher wrote in an e-mail today:

"I am so honored to be sitting in my classroom with seventh- and eighth-graders now, way out here in Wyoming, showing them 'Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks.' I would not be able to do this without your work and funding for the video. With Mrs. Parks' death last night, my kids are actually totally engaged in what they are seeing and hearing. I provided them with academic background knowledge prior to watching, but I know this viewing will help them know forever more who Rosa Parks was and what she did. Thank you!"

On the occasion of her passing, the SPLC's Teaching Tolerance program is reminding educators across the country about its free teaching kit.

"In 1955, she was a word of truth," said Georgette Norman, director of the Rosa Parks Library and Museum in Montgomery. "The world followed, and the truth had wings and flew. Today, we owe her so much for what she did."

'Non-negotiable dignity'

People across the country now mourn her loss, and praise her quiet strength.

Lerone Bennett, historian, author and Ebony magazine editor emeritus, as quoted in the Chicago Tribune: "She was one woman on a bus, surrounded by hostile forces, who changed everything for us. She showed us that that is the duty and task of every man and woman. I see it from my perspective as a summons to go back to our history and to complete the revolution that she started, that [Dr. Martin Luther] King and others started."

Jesse Jackson, in a statement issued from Johannesburg, South Africa: "History knocked on her door, and with quiet courage she answered with non-negotiable dignity. Her light in darkness illuminated the path for the majestic leadership of Dr. King. Together, they changed the course of American and world history."

The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, as quoted in New York Newsday: "America has lost a great soul. When she sat down, she stood up for America. She was a great lady, full of courage. She had a strong character, strong convictions."

And this, from Julian Bond: "She showed the world, not just me but everyone, what one person can do. She is one person who sparked a movement whose ripples are still being felt, not just all over the country, but all over the world."