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Dreams Deferred, Dreams Won

By Kim Knox

The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.

— Rosa Parks (quoted in Gail Collins, American Women, 2003)

American Women by Gail Collins is witty, well written, and filled with examples of women’s accomplishments during the last 400 years.

The stories are often depressing. U.S. (and world) history tends to ignore women's presence, and especially their successes. Women were on the first boats and the first wagon trains, in the first settlements and the first explorations. Yet their memories and experiences were not recorded.

There are also countless stories of women being denied an education, entry into the work world (even though they were the sole supporters of children), and recognition for their work.

But the book contains is a ray of hope as well: the persistence of women as they follow the path where they have already accomplished so much. Women suffrage. Universal education. Housing measures. Civil rights. And much more.

Collins notes that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony didn't see the dawn of women suffrage — but their protégés did. Countless women who tried to enroll in medical school in the 1870s didn't get a spot — but their daughters and granddaughters did. Hundreds of women worked to stop slavery in the U.S. And then, a hundred years later, women worked to get civil rights laws in place.

American Women dismantles the myth that Rosa Parks simply had a hard day in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955 and decided that she wasn't going to move when the bus driver told her to go to the back of the bus.

In truth, Rosa Lee McCauley Parks had been training for that moment since the day she was born in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1913. Her grandfather was the son of a white plantation owner and a mixed-blood slave. His parents both died when he was young, and the overseer beat, starved, and tormented the orphaned boy. Under her grandfather’s influence, Parks became aware of facts about black life in the South that many wanted to ignore.

When she was young, she met a young man who wooed her by telling her about his efforts to raise money for the Scottsboro Boys, nine black youths who were sentenced to die in a trumped-up rape case. Their meeting must have been destiny — he was Raymond Parks, the man who would be her husband and partner in the struggle for equal rights.

She began by trying to register to vote in 1943, when only a few dozen blacks in Montgomery were able to get over the hurdles. She also worked as a secretary for the NAACP from 1943 to 1956. She went to the Highlander Folk School in Mississippi, where civil rights organizers were trained. Rosa Parks wasn’t tired that day in December 1955 — she was ready.

American Woman points out that two black teenage girls had been arrested earlier that year in Montgomery for not giving their seat to white passengers. Local black women began to organize a bus boycott around their arrests, but male leaders in Montgomery felt that the teenagers were too socially downscale to qualify as a proper test.

So Rosa Parks, a respectable 42-year-old seamstress with white gloves and rimless glasses, stayed in her seat when the driver threatened to have her arrested. “You may do that,” she replied.

The following Monday, Parks arrived in court with white cuffs and a velvet hat. A young woman in the crowd shouted, "They've messed with the wrong one now." She was right.

The boycott lasted for more than a year as the blacks of Montgomery stunned the nation with the depth of their determination. It made Martin Luther King Jr. a national name. But it wouldn't have happened without Rosa Parks and all of the women who organized the boycott and kept it alive day after day.

When the March on Washington occurred in August 1963, Rosa Parks was there; Pauli Murray, who had arranged the first sit-in at a Washington, D.C. restaurant, was there; and Daisy Bates, who got the Little Rock Nine enrolled into an all-white high school, was there — as well as countless other women who had walked picket lines, marched in demonstrations, and risk their lives to bring the Civil Rights Act to the eyes of the public. Nevertheless, all of the speakers on the podium were men.

When the lone woman on the 19-member planning committee protested, the organizers threw together a last-minute "Tribute to Women" where A. Philip Randolph introduced Parks, Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, and others as they sat silently.

Collins adds that many years later E. D. Nixon, Parks’ lawyer, met a woman who told him that she couldn’t imagine what would have happened if Martin Luther King, Jr. hadn’t come to Montgomery. “I said, “If Mrs. Parks had got up and given that white man her seat, you’ve never heard of Rev. King.”

Countless times women were shouted down, ignored, and shunted aside. Countless times these women got up, continued on their mission, and accomplished their goal. But they failed to receive the recognition that a male colleague would have gotten.

Collins gives another example. During World War II, most of the military nurses stationed in the Philippines were taken as prisoners of war and held with 3,000 American and British civilians captured in Manila. Miraculously, they were all alive when they released from captivity three years later, even though many of their fellow prisoners had died of malnutrition or tropical diseases.

They were kept alive largely because of the actions of their leader, Maude Davidson, during the evacuation, bombardment, and internment. She kept up their spirits and made sure that they focused on helping their fellow internees. Physicians who served with Davidson urged that she be awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. But the male leaders of the Pacific theater didn't want her success to highlight their losses — and so she was never honored for her role in keeping the nurses alive.

Nevertheless, her nurses honored her. And the Army Nurse Corps continues to honor her memory and that of the nurses who served under her during those trying three years as part of the history that is given to each nurse who comes into the U.S. Army.

By following our own dreams and helping others (both male and female) achieve theirs, we keep alive the memory of the women who came before us and worked for a better future for all of us — with or without the recognition of those around them.

The question is not whether we can afford to invest in every child; it is whether we can afford not to.

 — Marian Wright Edelman, The Measure of Our Success (1992)