As we prepare to celebrate the life and legacy Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on January 15th, I have found myself reflecting on his life along with Mrs. Rosa Parks. We are certainly living in unique times and I about the impact of these two icons had on our country–even in 2018.
As a senior at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) in January, 1982, I was fortunate and privileged to meet the mother of the Civil Rights movement–the late, Mrs. Rosa Parks. As EMU’s Student Body President, I represented students and welcomed dignitaries to campus, such as Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (NY), noted poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and Martin Luther King, III, et. al.
EMU’s annual event, Humanitarian Days, honored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s with events surrounding his birthday. This year would have been his 89th birthday. Humanitarian Days’ mission was to honor and recognize those making a difference in the spirit of Dr. King’s legacy and honoring individuals for their remarkable achievements focused on making our country a better place.
And, what better person to recognize Dr. King’s legacy and spirit than Mrs. Parks?
As a youngster, I recalled certain events surrounding the Civil Rights movement and its impact on the future course of the country. As students, we studied the legacies of Dr. King and Mrs. Parks, including the 1955 event where she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. An event which helped propel Dr. King to the forefront of the movement. The bus now sits at The Henry Ford in Dearborn.
This year also marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination which occurred during turbulent times in this country’s history. The 1950’s and 1960’s (and before) represented a time when events happened which had a lasting impact on creating and driving the Civil Rights movement. These events tapped into the national conscious and challenged historical, institutional thinking while making many people uncomfortable.
And both Mrs. Parks and Dr. King, et. al. were instrumental in driving this national conversation, encouraging self-reflection and driving change while generating dialogue, sometimes controversial to some, among the country’s citizenry.
So imagine my excitement, as a student, when I found out I would be having lunch with her and the privilege of introducing Mrs. Parks EMU’s 1982 Humanitarian event.
I don’t think I slept for days, in advance, of the occasion.
As we were sitting on the stage at Pease Auditorium and before introducing her (see photo), I was understandably nervous, but had the courage to ask Mrs. Parks one simple question:
“Why did you do it?”
She looked at me with her gentle face, soft voice and southern drawl and simply said this, “Mark, I was tired. Just tired…”
I initially thought she was simply tired from working all day as a seamstress and wanted to rest her weary body with a seat on the bus, but then it hit me.
She was referencing inequities confronting the country. Mrs. Parks went on to explain to me, in detail, the racial and social injustices happening across the United States during a period of segregation and beyond.
As a youngster, I remembered studying the history of Civil Rights movement, but here I am hearing it directly from the mother of the movement. She then proceeded to tell me about her relationship with Dr. King and how they became connected during those difficult and turbulent times.
As I sit here in 2018 and reflect on the legacy of Dr. King on his birthday, I can’t help but think about what would have happened if Mrs. Parks never had the courage to utter those words “…was tired…” which thrust Dr. King further into the limelight.
Those simple words changed the course of history and the direction of our country.
In business and across various interactions, for example, it started to change (not overnight) how people started to deal with each other. It also started to open up opportunities for various segments of the population which were historically not allowed to participate in economic development and business opportunities. It also challenged us to provide seats and encourage inclusiveness at the table.
In 2018, are we where we need to be?
But despite its past and current challenges, think of where this country would be if Mrs. Parks’ didn’t show the courage to speak up and if Dr. King didn’t join forces with her to make this country, through their actions, a better place to live and work.
With that said, Happy Birthday, Dr. King and, thank you, Mrs. Parks.