When I was much younger, just barely aged into the very low two digits, I had a chance meeting with a revered figure of American history. At the time, I didn’t realize the significance of who I was meeting. Now that I am older, I realize that, aside from my mother, she was the most important person I have ever met.
My mother’s friend, Louise Tappes, who came from a family that was heavily involved in Illinois state politics, was married to Shelton Tappes, an organizer and negotiator in the UAW and an activist in the civil rights movement when I still lived in my hometown of Detroit, Michigan. They had one of those large extended families that frequently had loud, boisterous gatherings at their home. My mother and I were invited to some of these parties which we always enjoyed. I have many fond memories of Louise and Shelton’s house.
One day, my mother and I stopped by Louise’s house to visit on a quiet day. An older lady was sitting by herself at the table in the dinette. I don’t remember being introduced to her but when I heard her name I knew immediately who she was. She was Mrs. Rosa Parks and it turned out that Louise was her friend.
I sat down next to Mrs. Parks and didn’t really know what to say to her but eventually and very hesitantly asked if the “bus thing” really happened which she confirmed. I didn’t ask any more about it and she resumed drinking her coffee and being the quiet person she frequently was.
Over the years, I would occasionally see Mrs. Parks at Louise’s house when she had her house parties. And she usually sat quietly observing the goings-on and not saying much. Occasionally she brought her husband Raymond with her.
I never again asked about the Montgomery Bus Boycott; now I wish I had. At the time, I felt like doing so would be rude and prying. And because the bus boycott put her on the map and was the most popular story about her, I never knew about her life in the South, her other adventures in civil rights activism or even the authentic version of what transpired on the infamous bus.
Many years ago, my mother, who had a long career as a school and public librarian, told me that Mrs. Parks once asked her assistance in organizing her papers that she collected over the years. My mother, another gentlewoman, told me of some of the things she read among the collection. Mixed among articles from various publications and other documents were letters which she said contained some of the vilest statements she had ever read. Some were just the ravings of garden variety crackpots, some were death threats, and a lot of them contained the racist’s usual epithet of choice: nigger.
My time with Mrs. Parks was very brief and sporadic. I regret that I didn’t have enough chutzpah at the time to ask her more questions about her experiences. To hear those stories from the source would have truly been invaluable.
Now that I am older, I see how her work and legacy has truly benefited Americans in particular and humanity in general. Everyone knows of her work for equality and justice for all.
This is why I eschew celebrities and public personalities and don’t treat them with reverence that some do. Living in Los Angeles, a city filled with those who are famous, infamous, those who desire fame and others who are somewhere in between, a lot of them will never leave a legacy anywhere close to hers. And when they invoke her name for their own purposes, it shows their ignorance and arrogance.
She put herself into real jeopardy, risking life and her liberty in a justice system that was skewed against her and those she associated with. Putting oneself into peril like that and coming out on top takes real guts and smarts. There are very few like Mrs. Parks anymore.
Many of Mrs. Parks and Mr. Tappes’ papers are now housed at my mother’s alma mater, Wayne State University in The Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs.