Rosa Parks Shifted Civil Rights Movement into First Gear

Rosa Parks Shifted Civil Rights Movement into First Gear

School children today likely have a hard time imagining the unimaginable. But just two generations ago, by custom and by law, American society dictated which public restroom, water fountain, swimming pool, restaurant or even bus seat could be used because of one's skin color.

Thanks to an act of defiance, indeed an illegal act of civil disobedience nearly 50 years ago, a new chapter in American history was written.

On Dec. 1, 1955, a 42-year-old woman, taking the bus home from work in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat to a white man. Her refusal to stand up and go to the back of the bus that night got her arrested.

After suffering indignities of a second-class citizenship for four decades, Rosa Parks decided enough is enough. On that night, she refused to take a back seat in American society. In so doing, she helped launch an extraordinary era in the modern day civil rights movement for full citizenship and racial equality for African Americans.

Rosa Parks mobilized ordinary Americans by putting a face on legal segregation. However, her act of courage was anything but simple.

Her arrest triggered a 381-day boycott of Montgomery's public transit system. The boycott eventually led the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold a lower court decision to desegregate the local bus system.

Parks received death threats, but persevered with her determination to make a difference for future generations. Her now famous ride home from work turned into a lifelong ride of advocacy and activism for social justice and racial equality.

The seed planted in Montgomery sprouted across the country, creating a movement for social change in America to open wide the door for educational, employment and economic opportunity.

On the heels of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education and the lynching of a young Emmett Till for "eying" a white woman in Mississippi a year later, America's social conscience was beginning to awaken.

Rosa Parks shifted public awareness into first gear. And for 50 years, she served as an icon of human dignity, civil rights and racial equality. Her gentle, yet influential, advocacy helped sow the seeds of change in America.

When the humble seamstress died in October at age 92, Congress passed a resolution to have her remains "lie in honor" for two days in the U.S. Capitol. The civil rights pioneer was the first woman to do so. Since President Abraham Lincoln, other U.S. presidents, military leaders and members of Congress have lain in state in the Capitol Rotunda to honor their service to their country.

As a federal policymaker, I take seriously my oath of office to uphold the U.S. Constitution for each and every American citizen. Democracy is a work in progress and as a society we must do better to hear every voice and foster equality for all citizens.

Through my oversight of the USDA, I'm working to make sure federal farm programs don't discriminate against farmers based on the color of their skin.

In June, the U.S. Senate adopted a resolution which I supported that apologizes to the victims of lynching and the descendants of those victims for the failure of the Senate to enact anti-lynching legislation.

As a senior member of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, I also have joined ranks with my colleagues to introduce bipartisan legislation that would create a new office in the U.S. Department of Justice to open up "cold cases" from a sad chapter in American history. It was a time when lynchings, legal segregation and race-based terrorism gripped the South and divided America neighborhood by neighborhood. Our legislation would make sure not a stone is left unturned in an effort to make right what went wrong with our judicial system during the 1950s and 1960s.

By narrowing the achievement gaps in education, homeownership, employment and business ownership, we've made significant progress in the last half-century. But we can and must do better.

It is our duty as elected leaders to make sure we honor the legacy of Rosa Parks. We must work together across political parties and regional boundaries to advance public policies that confront the struggle we face every day in America: to foster freedom, opportunity, prosperity, liberty and social justice for all.

It would be the greatest tribute to Rosa Parks' memory if our grandchildren and great-grandchildren live in an open society where segregation in America is ancient history.