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Harry Cassin
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At Large: How a seamstress with integrity changed America

Compliance people often talk about integrity. Living with it, on the other hand, can be a lot harder. One American who did that was Rosa Parks.

When her critical moment arrived, she said, “That’s enough.” She chose integrity at an enormous personal cost. None of us can do better than that.

In 1955, Rosa and her husband, Raymond Parks, were living in Montgomery, Alabama. Raymond worked as a barber. Rosa did housekeeping for a white couple and was a seamstress at a downtown department store. They were both members of the local chapter of the NAACP, and Rosa served as secretary. “I was the only woman there, and they needed a secretary, and I was too timid to say no,” she said later.

Montgomery’s 40,000 black daily bus riders paid the same fare as whites but had to sit in the back. A city ordinance on the books since 1900 required segregation on all public transport. The bus drivers (all of them white) used ribbons to mark off rows — in front for whites, and in the back for blacks.

After working all day on Thursday, December 1, 1955, Rosa caught a downtown bus for home. She sat in the first row behind the ribbon, in a designated “colored” seat. When several whites boarded the bus, the driver moved the ribbon back one row and told Rosa to move back behind the ribbon. She refused.

She later wrote: “I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

The police arrested Rosa. After a 30-minute trial, she was convicted and fined $10, plus $4 for court costs. The following Sunday, the black churches in Montgomery announced a boycott of the city buses, until black drivers were hired, and seating on the buses changed to a first-come basis. One of the pastors who told his congregation about the boycott was a newcomer to Montgomery named Martin Luther King, Jr. On Monday, all 40,000 black commuters stayed off the buses. A lot of them walked to work, even though it was raining.

The boycott lasted 381 days and financially crippled the bus company. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Montgomery ordinance was unconstitutional. When the city repealed its bus segregation law on December 21, 1956, Rosa Parks was one of the first black passengers.

Rosa and Raymond left Montgomery soon after. They couldn’t find work there anymore, and she was receiving death threats. They eventually settled in Detroit. She worked for Representative John Conyers as a secretary and receptionist in his congressional field office until she retired in 1988.

Rosa Parks, 92, died on October 24, 2005. The city of Montgomery honored her by reserving the front seats of all its buses with black ribbons.

– – –

I thought this week’s assignment from the editor would be easy, a bit of a breather. Instead, it was one of the hardest: Name one person from your country you admire for their integrity.

The problem? Settling on just one hero. My short list started with 11 names. Then it swelled to 18. A day later, it was nearing 30.

But Rosa Parks is my pick for today.

If any readers want to take on the same assignment: Name one person from your country you admire for their integrity, please do so. But be warned: stopping at just one won’t be easy.

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  1. I would nominate my best friend who challenged sexism in promotions in a large blue-chip so other women could benefit

  2. Love this.

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