When I was a freshman in college, at Memphis State University, Rosa Parks came to lecture to the students on campus. I’m not going to lie — at the time I was eighteen and was more interested in the fraternity party that was set to begin an hour in to the lecture. But, I had a professor who encouraged all of us to go listen and even offered extra credit if we managed to meet her. I needed the extra credit and thought this particular professor was really dreamy so… I went to listen to Rosa Parks.
The auditorium was packed. It was the same auditorium that my Intro to Psychology class met in — there were more kids in that class then were in my entire graduating senior class of high school. That night, if it was even possible, the auditorium held more people than I thought capable. It was mid-September, 7pm, and sweltering hot outside. The heat poured in to the auditorium and everyone was fanning themselves and fidgeting in their seats. Then, Ms. Parks came on stage.
She was old, even then in 1986. That was the first thing I noticed, her age, 73. Then I immediately noticed her frailty — she was small, and timid, and needed help on to the stage, and sat while she talked. The auditorium was laid out so that I could see her really well — she looked like the pictures I had seen, her hair pulled back in a bun, her glasses, her sensible shoes.
The crowd calmed when she walked out, the fanning stopped and I thought that everyone must be feeling the same calm breeze that I felt. The woman who was assisting her addressed the crowd first. She told us that Ms. Parks was feeling tired on this night and wondered if it was alright if she just sat in her chair and answered questions from the crowd. I remember trying to take notes on the questions and her answers but I became so caught up in watching her speak that I lost track of the writing and eventually gave up. I desperately wanted an intelligent question to come to my mind so I could raise my hand and have a minute to speak to her — but, it wasn’t to be. The others had questions that were so thought out and intelligent and my mind had only been thinking of that fraternity party just an hour earlier.
Every word she said reminded me of listening to a grandparent tell you about their life, about their loves, about their hardships and their triumphs. I could barely remove my gaze from her face — it was so small and smooth and content.
The questions eventually turned to that day on the bus, when everyone knew her name. The story she told still makes me smile — like that I have the insider information to what really happened. She said she had been a seamstress and had had a very tiring day at work. She got on the bus and sat in one of the only available seats. She said the bus driver drove on until the next stop when he needed the white only seats and needed for her to get up. She said it was late and she was tired and she didn’t have any intention of getting up. I think the kind of tired she was talking about wasn’t really related to her physical state as much as her emotional state — she was tired.
We all get tired don’t we? We all need a place to sit down and collect our thoughts. But, we don’t all necessarily have the strength to stop the tired. I often thought about Ms. Parks and how, given her frail size and soft voice, she was able to take control of her tired. She was able to say “that’s enough”. It’s strange how we sometimes find strength in other people — how their words and their stories lead us to our own strength.
I stayed after the questions had all been asked. I wanted to see her — closely. I wanted to touch her hand and see if it was as soft as it looked. I wanted to hear her voice without the microphone. I was one of the last people she spoke with that night — a memory I will have forever. My friends went to the fraternity party but I met Rosa Parks.
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