For Sussex native, Rosa Parks was more than historical figure

March 12, 2013

Last month, a statue of Rosa Parks, the woman who became a civil rights leader by refusing to move to the back of the bus, was unveiled in the U.S. Capitol.

Parks is the first black woman to be honored with a full-length statue in Statuary Hall. Appropriately enough, she is shown sitting down, since that’s the way the she made her stand.

To many Americans, Parks, whose quiet protest took place in 1955, is a historical figure. That’s not the case with Bryan Stevenson, a 1977 Cape Henlopen graduate who has spent much of his adult life in Montgomery, Ala., where Park’s spontaneous refusal led to the city’s historic bus boycott.

In January, I wrote about Stevenson’s talk at Delaware State University, which dealt mostly with repealing the state’s death penalty.

But Stevenson also spoke briefly about meeting Parks, whom Republican U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky at the statue’s unveiling, called a “national hero.”

Parks no longer lived in Montgomery when Stevenson was working there, but she would occasionally come back to visit two of her closest friends. One of the friends, Stevenson said, “would call and say, ‘Bryan, Miss Parks is coming back to town and we’re going to get together and talk. Do you want to come over and listen?’”

Stevenson, of course, would agree and the woman would ask, “’Now tell me, Bryan, what does the word ‘listen’ mean?’”

Stevenson got the message: He wasn’t supposed to say a word. As a lawyer, Stevenson was used to talking quite a bit, but he didn’t mind. He appreciated the honor of being in the great woman’s presence.

“I would just listen to these women talk and they would be so full of energy and so excited and it would be so affirming to just be there,” Stevenson said.

But one day Parks turned to Stevenson and asked him about the organization he leads, the Equal Justice Initiative.

Stevenson said, “I gave her my rap. ‘We’re trying to do something about the death penalty. We’re trying to end mass incarceration. We’re trying to change the way we think about punishment. We’re trying to do something about the abuse of power, racial discrimination, discrimination against the poor.’

“And when I finished she looked at me said, ‘Mmm, mmm, mmm. That is going to make you tired, tired, tired.’”

At that, one of Parks’s friends said to Stevenson, “And that’s why you have to be brave, brave, brave.”

Stevenson said he knows of no better time and place to be brave than right now in Delaware, where a serious effort is being made to repeal the death penalty. A rally will be held at 12:30 p.m. today, March 12, at Legislative Hall in Dover to mark the introduction of a bill that would end capital punishment in Delaware. A release sent out by Delaware Repeal listed Sen. Gary Simpson, R-Milford, as among those scheduled to attend.

At his talk that night, Stevenson also recalled some of the recent history here in Sussex County - a story that might surprise younger readers and newer residents alike.

Stevenson said he doesn’t like hearing people talk about the “good old days.” They weren’t always that good.

Stevenson’s father was the only one of his siblings able to attend high school, said Stevenson. That’s because the only high school for black students in Delaware was in Wilmington. Most students were unable to make the trip.

When it came time for Stevenson to begin school, the old ways remained.

“I grew up in a Sussex County where the legacy of Jim Crow was very evident,” Stevenson said. “I’m not that old, but when we started our education down in Milton and Georgetown the schools were still segregated. There was a ‘colored’ school that I went to as a little child.”

(I can vouch for Stevenson being “not that old.” He’s two years younger than me so, by definition, he can’t be old.)

Segregation didn’t come to a complete end in Delaware until 1967. Stevenson said we’re still living with that legacy.

New laws, by themselves, don’t change old ways of thinking, but they are a start.

In 1955, Rosa Parks made start by refusing to move to the back of the bus. In 2013, Delawareans can make a start by demanding repeal of the death penalty.

For more information, check the Delaware Repeal website.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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