Lawmakers seek federal holiday

Sixty-six years ago this week, Rosa Parks made history by refusing to relinquish her seat to a White man on a city bus. She was arrested and charged with violating a Montgomery, Ala. segregation law.

The arrest sparked the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott which proved to be a turning point for the Civil Rights Movement.

Now six decades later, a bill has been introduced to establish Rosa Parks Day as a federal holiday on Dec. 1. In September, Ohio Rep. Joyce Beatty, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, along with Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee and Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama are leading the charge to honor the late civil rights icon in a special way.

“Through her willingness to sit, Rosa Parks stood up for what she believed in,” Beatty said. “As a state legislator, I was proud to lead the push to make the Buckeye State the first state to officially recognize Rosa Parks Day. It’s now time for us to come together as a nation to honor this American hero through a new national holiday.”

Only four states honor Rosa Parks Day as a state holiday. California and Missouri honor Parks’ birthday, Feb. 4, while Ohio and Oregon celebrate it on Dec. 1, the day of her arrest. 

News about the legislation comes amid a controversy swirling around a banned children’s book about her by Pennsylviania’s Central York School District board. Brad Meltzer, a New York Times best-selling author and creator of the “I Am” series that follows ordinary people who changed the world, is the writer of at least two books banned by the school board. Both his “I Am Martin Luther King, Jr.” and “I Am Rosa Parks” books are no longer permitted in the district.

“Nashville led the nonviolent civil rights movement, but there may not have even been a movement were it not for the bravery of a young woman from Alabama named Rosa Parks,” Cooper said. “There is no more fitting or deserving person in American history to award the honor of a new national holiday than Rosa Parks.”

Parks, an unassuming  “fair-skinned” woman, was a seamstress as well as a secretary of the Montgomery, Ala. chapter of the NAACP. She was familiar with the strict Jim Crow laws and segregation du jour practiced in the Deep South. Prior to her legendary stance in not giving up her seat, Parks had earlier been refused entry via the front door of a Montgomery, Ala. bus and was allowed to board only from the rear. Once, when walking toward the rear of the bus, the driver drove away without her.

In the mid-50s, Parks  was educated on “Race Relations” from the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn. where she learned the tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience. On the famous day in history, Parks happened to board a bus to head home. While sitting in the front row allocated for the “colored section,” the bus began to fill rapidly. When a White man boarded the bus, everyone seated in her row was ordered to vacate their seats. All consented except for Parks.

When she did not comply with the driver’s seating assignment, she was arrested. On Dec. 5  she was charged guilty and fined $10 with an additional $4 for court proceedings. Her action would trigger Blacks to boycott the Montgomery services for nearly a year as a campaign ensued against racial segregation in public transportation.

The campaign included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a young minister from Atlanta, Ga., along with Dr. Ralph Abernathy. On Dec. 20, 1956 the United States Supreme Court passed a federal ruling (Browder v. Gayle) outlawing segregation in public transportation as  being illegal and unconstitutional. The bus boycott would fuel a number of future American civil rights campaigns.

Fifty-three years prior to Parks’ brave stand, Homer Plessy devised a similar plan to test segregation laws. Plessy, a shoemaker, challenged Louisiana segregation laws by refusing to move from a “Whites only” railcar in 1892.

The New Orleans native was born to a family of mixed heritage who could easily “pass” for White. Plessy thought of himself as one-eighth Black (an “octoroon”) since his great-grandmother was from Africa. Taking up activism, in 1887, Plessy served as vice president of the Justice, Protective Educational and Social Club to reform New Orleans’ public education system.

Plessy challenged the 1890 Separate Car Act on behalf of a group called the Citizens Committee. One historic day, Plessy purchased a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railroad and sat in the “Whites only” section. He told the conductor that he was one-eighth Black and refused to remove himself from the car. Plessy was ejected from the train, jailed overnight and released on $500 bond.

In protesting the violation of his 13th and 14th amendment rights, the Plessy case reached the U.S. Supreme Court where, in 1896, Justice William Billings Brown defined the “seperate but equal” clause that supported segregation and the Jim Crow laws as long as each race had equal access to equal public facilities.

Despite the legal defeat, Plessy had a major impact on the Civil Rights Movement more than a half century later. His actions helped to inspire the formation of the NAACP which incorporated his 14th Amendment arguments before the Supreme Court in the 1954 landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, which overruled the separate-but-equal doctrine.

Last month, a Louisiana board voted unanimously to pardon Homer Plessy and to clear the Creole man’s record of a conviction. It is anticipated that Gov. John Bel Edwards will sign the measure.

What is the best way to observe Rosa Parks Day? Learn more about her and the Civil Rights Movement by reading her 1999 autobiography “Rosa Parks: My Story,” “Boycott” (2001) “Selma “ (2014) and many other books on the topic. Observe the day by watching movies or documentaries about her and share your thoughts on social media with the hashtag #RosaParksDay.

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