Seat of power

Strength and courage ... visitors with a statue of Rosa Parks on a replica bus at the museum in Montgomery that honours her fight for equality.
Strength and courage ... visitors with a statue of Rosa Parks on a replica bus at the museum in Montgomery that honours her fight for equality. Photo: Getty Images

In what would have been the month Rosa Parks turned 100, Amanda Woods visits a museum dedicated to a woman who changed history.

When some think of the moment Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, they see a little old lady who was too tired to get up. As Parks explained in her autobiography, My Story, that isn't true: "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."

What happened next went down in history. And it's a part of history that is powerfully captured in the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.

Even before I step into the museum, I feel that sense of awe that comes with knowing you're standing in the spot where something extraordinary happened. The museum has been built beside the bus stop where Parks made her stand on December 1, 1955, and refused to surrender her seat to a white person.

It is one of a number of museums dedicated to civil rights that I have visited in Alabama but, while I may know some of the stories, this one still has me enthralled.

Interactive displays, including a replica of the public bus Parks was sitting on, transport us back to the early 1800s, through the "Jim Crow" era, the night when Parks took her seat on the bus, the Montgomery Bus Boycott that followed, and the impact that it all had on the civil rights movement.

Only knowing the broader brush strokes of the story, I am surprised to discover Rosa Parks was not the first who refused to move. The museum acknowledges those before her, including Irene Morgan in 1946 and Sarah Louise Keys in 1955.

It also explains that Parks was a seasoned political activist, not a naive woman unaware of the impact of her decision. She was on her way home that night to do some work for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and she knew just who to call after she was arrested — her NAACP boss, E.D. Nixon.

The protest that followed and the black community's boycott of Montgomery city buses was felt around the country.

Martin Luther King jnr organised the boycott from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where he was a young minister at the time. As he put it, Rosa Parks "had been tracked down by the Zeitgeist — the spirit of the time". Photos, letters and audio of men and women who participated in the boycott capture that spirit. I see tears in the eyes of other tourists, and feel them myself as I soak it all in.

On December 20, 1956 — a little more than a year after the boycott began — the US Supreme Court declared the Alabama and Montgomery laws of segregated buses unconstitutional. The next day, Rosa Parks took a seat at the front of a Montgomery bus.

Parks may have been an icon of the civil rights movement, but life was still difficult. After struggling to find work in Alabama, she moved to Chicago with her husband, Raymond, and worked as a seamstress until she was hired as a secretary by African-American US Representative John Conyers.

Still passionate about change, she founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development to help black children reach their full potential. Then in 1998 she was invited to return to the place she was arrested for an important groundbreaking.

The space where the Rosa Parks Museum now stands was set to become a parking area for Troy University.

Fortunately, officials noticed the large number of people who stood on the corner to read the historical marker, and realised the spot had a higher calling.

Parks and her family were the first to tour the museum, and she was there for its grand opening on December 1, 2000.

The woman US Congress called "the mother of the freedom movement" was 92 when she passed away in 2005.

Although she may not have lived to see her 100th birthday on February 4, 2013, the anniversary has been marked with celebrations, a new book and a US postal stamp.

Rosa Parks once said: "I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free, and wanted other people to also be free." And so she shall be.

The writer was a guest of Alabama Tourism.

Trip notes

See + do

The Rosa Parks Museum (+1 334 241 8615) is at 252 Montgomery Street, Montgomery, Alabama. Open Monday to Friday (9am to 5pm) and Saturday (9am to 3pm), admission $14 adults, $10 children. trojan.troy.edu/community/rosa-parks-museum.

The Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church (+1 334 263 3970) is at 454 Dexter Avenue, Montgomery. Tours are held Tuesday to Friday from 10am to 4pm and Saturdays 10am to 2pm, or you can attend a service at any time. dexterkingmemorial.org.

The Montgomery Visitor Bureau has more information about things to do at visitingmontgomery.com.

Staying there

The Hampton Inn & Suites in Downtown-Montgomery (100 Commerce Street, +1 334 265 1010) is walking distance from both the museum and church. Rooms from $124 a night.

Getting there

Delta has flights from Sydney to Montgomery, Alabama, via Los Angeles and Atlanta from $1467 return. (02) 9767 4333. delta.com.

Dr Martin Luther King's church

Stepping into the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church on a Sunday morning, it's clear at a glance I am the only white visitor here. I've come alone and am not sure if I'll be welcome, but within moments an elderly lady waves me over to sit beside her. She explains that she's 84 and she adopts me for the service.

I'm torn between listening to the moving — and entertaining — sermon and getting lost in thoughts about the history that surrounds me. This was Dr Martin Luther King's first and only full-time pastorate, and it was here that he developed from a young minister into a civil rights leader.

I'm also falling in love with the church choir. With their incredible voices and electric guitar they're almost lifting the roof, and I'm happy to find they're selling CDs.

"Newcomers have to stand up now," my friend warns me. I'm nervous, but all around me people are smiling and welcoming.

As the service ends, I'm invited to go downstairs and see the large mural that commemorates King's civil rights work from Montgomery to Memphis. I'm moved beyond words, and after saying my farewells I step out into the day filled with love.

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