In 1999 Rosa Parks was honored with the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor for being the "Mother of the Modern Day Civil Rights Movement." I still remember being stunned by the news because I could not believe that it had taken forty-four years to honor the woman whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 5, 1955, triggered a black boycott of the city's bus system. The boycott lasted 381 days and eventually led to laws that ended legalized segregation. You have to go back to the Boston Tea Party to find an act of defiance that is as important in American history and if there is any one citizen who deserves the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor it would have to be Rosa Parks.
After receiving her medal Parks said it was "encouragement for all of us to continue until all have rights." "Dear Mrs. Parks: A Dialogue with Today's Youth" is a collection of letters between Rosa Parks and children over the last forty years. A Preface on "Rosa Parks: Model of Courage, Symbol of Freedom" covers the highlights of her life story. The opening section presents "The Most Commonly Asked Questions From Letters to Mrs. Parks" such as "How old are you?" and "Do you have any children?" (Parks was 83 in 1996 when the book was published and while she never had any children she does "consider all children as mine.
The letters and Mrs. Parks' responses are divided into five categories: I. Courage and Hope ("Dear Mrs. Parks, What gave you the courage to say no and not move to the back of the bus and then get arrested?"), II. The Power of Knowledge and Education ("Dear Mrs. Parks, I heard you were having your 83rd birthday celebration. I told my dad you must know everything now. My dad disagrees with me, but I don't believe him."), III. Living With God ("Dear Mrs. Parks, Why does God let people do mean things, like when the police put you in jail? It seems like you kept going back to jail."), IV. Pathways to Freedom ("Dear Mrs. Parks, Sometimes people call me names because of my freckles. How do you feel good about yourself when other people try to make you feel bad?"), and V. Making a Difference ("Dear Mrs. Parks, It seems that my grandparents are always right, and they always want to help someone. Why do older people seem to be smarter than young people"). The questions are a nice mix of specific inquiries as to what Parks endured during the Civil Rights Movement and general concerns about the universal issues that have perplexed all children pretty much since the start of time. She also responds to questions about not only the Montgomery Bus Boycott but the Internet, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the Million Man March.
On the back cover of this book President Jimmy Carter writes "These letters provide heartening evidence that today's young people continue to be inspired, educated, and influenced by Rosa Parks' remarkable example." Parks answers these questions with simple wisdom, and sometimes simple humor as well, much as you would expect to hear from a grandmother. Her inspiration comes from her repeated insistence that young people embrace their role as agents for positive change in the society in which they live. Of course, there is no better person in the United States to make the point that in this country anybody really can make a difference than Rosa Parks. For students and teachers studying the Civil Rights Movement this certainly makes clear the relevance of the past for young people today.