This morning I went to a memorial service for Rosa Parks. I didn’t have to go far, just down the drive to a cottage built in the 1920s. Although it has moved with the times-indoor bathroom, central heating-the cottage still has a simplicity that she would have approved of.
The first thing I did was to make a pot of coffee. I don’t think she would have minded that. On the night she was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat for a white passenger, she returned home to the small apartment she shared with her husband and her mother. They were joined by E. D. Nixon, the NAACP leader in Montgomery who’d paid the $100 bail, and two white Alabamans, Virginia and Clifford Durr. Cliff was a lawyer who had worked in Washington during the New Deal, and Virginia was a belle with a deep hatred of southern bigotry. For three hours that night, they drank coffee and discussed what to do next. Finally, Cliff asked Mrs Parks if she wanted to test the constitutionality of the law itself or if she wanted him to try and get her off on the fact that the bus driver hadn’t been following the law. Her husband was reluctant: ‘Rosa, the white folks will kill you.’ But she said she wanted to test the constitutionality of the law. That solemn reply triggered a bus boycott that catapulted Martin Luther King, into the national spotlight and changed the history of America forever.
Coffee in hand, I gaze at the book-lined shelves that surround the cottage ‘reading room’ that looks over wheat fields. I take down the books that I want as my texts for the service. First of all, her own: Rosa Parks: My Story. Then Virginia Foster Durr’s Outside the Magic Circle: Autobiography. And of course Stride Toward Freedom, Martin Luther King’s moving account of what happened in Montgomery, Alabama, after one small, meticulous woman stayed seated.
On top of my pile is a slender volume in the Penguin Lives series by Douglas Brinkley, an eloquent book that makes it clear that the seamstress who earned $23 a week altering men’s clothes did not stumble into the civil rights movement by accident, but had spent her whole life building the physical and moral courage to demand her civil rights.
The music for this solitary service is Bryn Terfel’s Simple Gifts. As I read, I listen to the Welsh baritone singing the words of the spiritual Deep River:
O don’t you want to go to that gospel feast,
That promised land where all is peace.’
Although I call it the library, what’s housed here is a modest ‘collection’ of the histories, biographies and memoirs of a period of American history. Someday, all these books and papers will go off to Oxford University, to the Rothermere American Institute. I should part with it soon, but today I find comfort in its presence. It gives me a chance to visit again the Durrs’ whom I knew, and to say farewell to Rosa Parks who spent her whole life trying to educate young people. On the evening she was arrested, she was due to run her weekly NAACP Youth Council meeting at the tiny Lutheran church across the street. I think that she would be glad this period of American history is finding a home in England. She found her pleasure in quoting Joel 1:3: ‘Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation.’
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on November 3, 2005.