In a rare moment, one person’s simple act of courage can change the world. On the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, we pause to reflect on the impact and legacy of her courageous action.
Rosa’s awareness of social injustice started at an early age. As a girl growing up in Alabama, Rosa hated the disrespectful way that whites often treated black people. Her grandfather, a former slave, instilled a sense of pride and independence in her.
Reflecting upon Nelson Mandela’s death on December 5, journalist and former news anchor Dan Rather remarked, “Mandela’s legacy is on a line with those of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King—both of whom inspired him...”
The Henry Ford owns important historical objects that convey meaning and provide relevance for this line of courageous freedom fighters.
Mahatma Gandhi—champion for Indian nationalism in British-ruled India—gave Henry Ford this spinning wheel in 1941. Gandhi’s gift represented a commitment to world peace that he and Ford shared. Mandela often called Gandhi a role model.
Mandela acknowledged others in the long struggle for human rights. He once said, “Before King there was Rosa Parks. She inspired us…to be fearless when facing oppressors.” Mandela claimed that Rosa Parks’ courageous act sustained him while in prison. He was overjoyed to meet her in 1990, soon after his release from prison. The bus in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955 to a white man represents a decisive moment in the American Civil Rights movement.
In noting Mandela’s passing, President Obama recounted that his first experience in political activism was a protest against apartheid, and Mandela became a personal inspiration to him. Obama reflected, “Never discount the difference that one person can make.” Such perspective may have been present as he sat on the Rosa Parks bus during a 2012 visit to Henry Ford Museum.
With humility and respect for these extraordinary leaders, we hope that these objects and stories can both remind us of all that Mandela stood for and help contribute to ongoing conversations about social justice in our country and the world.
Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. Photo by Ted Eytan.
Of all the events that occurred that day 50 years ago, it is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech that is most often remembered today. That speech—which went far beyond what King had initially planned—has been considered one of the most inspiring and powerful speeches of all time.
But what else happened that day?
Take a closer look at the March on Washington through these five artifacts from the collections of The Henry Ford.
As this pennant shows, the March on Washington was not solely a Civil Rights demonstration. It actually started as a march for jobs. This march was the brainchild of A. Philip Randolph, 73-year-old founder of the famous black union for Pullman porters, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He had talked of staging a march similar to this one back in 1941, to protest the lack of military defense jobs for African Americans. Now, 22 years later, African Americans had still not made much progress, in either employment opportunities or equitable wages. When Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders decided to combine forces with Randolph, the march took on the broader meaning that we associate with it today.
Once they decided to join forces, several black Civil Rights organizations came together to plan the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington. Each group had different outlooks, agendas, and reasons for being there. But, working together, they created the list of demands on this handbill. While all the leaders could rally around the new Civil Rights bill that President Kennedy had just introduced to Congress, most of them wanted more—more assurance of jobs, reasonable wages, and an end to segregation and discrimination. Handbills like this one were posted in local communities to inspire people to attend the March.
The organizers of the March had hoped for 100,000 marchers to show up. But, by 11:00 the morning of Aug. 28, some 250,000 marchers had arrived in Washington, D.C., having come by bus, train, foot, bicycle, and even on roller skates. Many had traveled hundreds, even thousands, of miles to get there. Most had paid their own way. The March was held on a Wednesday, so many people had to miss a day or more of work. While most in attendance were African American, there was a strong contingent of white marchers as well. The photograph that appears on the front of this record album depicts just a small segment of the hundreds of thousands of marchers that attended that day. Leaders of the event can be seen spanning the row in the foreground.
This program is a fascinating document of the day’s events. Speakers from each of the Civil Rights organizations who had helped plan the March offered remarks, as did labor leader Walter Reuther and members of Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish organizations. A “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” included Rosa Parks. After about two hours of speeches, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech ignited the hot, tired crowd. Then, A. Philip Randolph—the original instigator of the March—read the words of a pledge that the marchers were to agree to, raising their voices in the affirmative. The words of this pledge still ring with the hope and determination that defined that day 50 years ago. The following is an excerpt:
I pledge to carry the message of the March to my friends and neighbors back home and arouse them to an equal commitment and equal effort. I will march and I will write letters. I will demonstrate and I will vote. I will work to make sure that my voice and those of my brothers ring clear and determined from every corner of our land.
I pledge my heart and my mind and my body unequivocally and without regard to personal sacrifice to the achievement of social peace through social justice.
In acknowledgement of the 50th anniversary of the March, a 20-minute film produced by the National Archives featuring historic footage will run on a loop throughout the day by "Your Place in Time" in Henry Ford Museum. From the U.S. Information Agency:
Experience the American Journey through our country's visual heritage in this historical recording provided by the National Archives of the United States. Scenes from the Civil Rights March in Washington, D.C., August 1963 includes footage featuring people walking up sidewalk; gathering on Mall, standing, and singing. It also includes people marching with signs, people at the speaker's podium, men with guitars, and crowds outside of the White House. A number of speakers are featured, including Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Also included are women at the podium singing "We Shall Overcome."
Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
In honor of Rosa Parks’ 100th birthday and our Day of Courage celebration earlier this year, the education team at The Henry Ford developed a special educational activity book for children that focuses on social innovation and how the civil rights pioneer took a stand against injustice. Writing and designing the book “Be an Innovator Like…Rosa Parks,” gave us an opportunity to learn more about Rosa Parks and extend the legacy she left on our country.
To prepare ourselves for writing the book, we read about Rosa’s family, especially her grandfather, who instilled a sense of pride in her, and her husband Raymond, who encouraged her to fight for equality. We researched the many other individuals who challenged segregations laws on buses in the South. And we looked into other social innovators who were inspired by Rosa Parks, like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. When we finally sat down to write, we knew we wanted to make Rosa Parks relatable to young students through this book, to show them that they can do extraordinary things, too.
In order for the book to stand out from other activity books on the shelf we designed it to be shaped like the real Rosa Parks bus on display inside Henry Ford Museum. The book, which is geared towards children in grades K-5, uses the “learning by doing” strategy and is broken down into fun activities that teach children milestone historic events in the life of Rosa Parks, and other past and present social innovators. The book includes colorful photographs from our collections, vocabulary building and mapping activities, and creative visualization and writing opportunities.
This activity book is the second in a series of innovation-themed children’s activity books. The first book in the series on Henry Ford became extremely popular last year among teachers and students nationwide.
“Rosa Parks’ story is such an inspiration for children,” said Paula Gangopadhyay, Chief Learning Officer for The Henry Ford. “The book is filled with critical information around Rosa Parks’ life and the iconic bus, but it is packaged in a kid-friendly format which will make learning fun.”
The book is aligned to Michigan and National Curriculum Standards, including the Common Core, and can be used in the classroom or at home. We know that social innovation is a complex topic for children, but it was our hope to inspire young readers to think about how they can make a difference in their own life, and how that difference could someday change the world.
You can purchase the book in any of the museum stores or through our online gift shop. We’re also offering a special discount if you buy 20 or more books together, which is great for teachers and youth service providers!
Last week people at Henry Ford Museum and across the country took part in the National Day of Courage, a day celebrating the strength of Rosa Parks on what would have been her 100th birthday. Guests filled the museum all day long to take part in the festivities. Thanks to our live stream of the event from Detroit Public Television, we were able to share the events online, too. From expressions of gratitude to thankful Facebook posts, it was exciting to see so many share their thoughts on Mrs. Parks and what courage means to them.
Our morning began with opening remarks from Julian Bond, a leader in the Civil Rights Movement.
We were honored to have U.S. Congressmen Gary Peters and John Conyers and Senator Carl Levin on hand to share their thoughts on Mrs. Parks and share a Presidential Proclamation for her 100th birthday. You can watch Congressman Peters share part of the letter below.
When guests see the Rosa Parks bus on display inside Henry Ford Museum, they are often in awe. Speechless. Moved, even.
And you don't have to merely look at this magnificent milestone in American history. When you visit Henry Ford Museum, you can actually climb aboard, walk the narrow aisle of the bus - and even sit in the very seat that Rosa Parks occupied on December 1, 1955.
But during that visit, two questions are typically asked: "Is it THE bus?" and "How did The Henry Ford get it?"
The answer to the first question: Yes, it is.
How the bus was acquired is a more modern story. In September 2001, an article in the Wall Street Journal announced that the Rosa Parks bus would be available in an Internet auction in October. Once we had confirmed the answer to the question posed above, we entered the online auction and came out the highest bidder.
After nearly five months of restoration, with support from the Save America's Treasures grant program, the Rosa Parks bus made its return to the floor of Henry Ford Museum on February 1, 2002. (With Liberty And Justice For All, the exhibition where the bus currently is displayed, had not yet been constructed.)
Paint chips from the unrestored bus, consultation with other experts, vintage postcards and eyewitness accounts from a museum employee who lived in Montgomery during the bus boycott allowed the museum to recreate the paint colors exactly.
Restoration efforts were performed on the bus down to the tiniest detail. For example: On the day Mrs. Parks boarded it, the bus was already seven years old and ran daily on the streets of Montgomery. Therefore, for authenticity, conservation experts applied recreated Alabama red dirt in the wheel wells, and tire treads and period advertising was recreated for the interior and exterior of the bus.
With all of these elements together and pondering what happened on December 1, 1955, exploring this historic artifact creates a powerful connection for many.