Rosa Parks' friend remembers Parks' actions

Nancy Cordes: Hello and welcome to "Face to Face." I'm Congressional Correspondent Nancy Cordes, and I'm joined today by Elaine Steele, who is a longtime friend, was a longtime friend of Rosa Parks, who's going to be honored this week, here, in Statuary Hall, here in the Capitol, with an unveiling of the statue that portrays Miss Parks and everything she did for the Civil Rights movement. Elaine, thank you so much for joining us.

Elaine Steele: Oh, you're welcome, thank you for inviting me.

Nancy Cordes: Tell me a little bit about your friendship with Rosa Parks--how did you get to know each other?

Elaine Steele: Oh, well, it was over 45 years, when I was a student in high school. I got an after-school job in a sewing factory where Rosa Parks was my seatmate. And, I thought that I could run a commercial sewing machine, but I found out that I couldn't. So she indeed mentored me for the few days that I was there, and then it was a mutual decision between the employer and the employee that perhaps there was a better job for me. But we became friends, and a couple of years after graduation from high school, we met again, when she was working for Congressman John Conyers, and I was working for the US Courts. And we started commuting home together, and the rest is history.

Nancy Cordes: How did she make the jump from working as a seamstress to working for Congressman Conyers?

Elaine Steele: Well, she in fact was always interested in human rights and civil rights, she was an activist, she was the secretary, one year of the NAACP and the next year she was the youth director. There were two women, basically in the NAACP in the Montgomery branch during those days--her friend Johnnie Carr was the one who encouraged her to become a member along with her husband, Raymond Parks, and those were the only two jobs that women were allowed to have, were youth director or secretary. So they would switch off--one year, Johnnie Carr was the secretary and Rosa Parks was the youth director, and vice versa. So this was her year to be youth director.

Nancy Cordes: What did you talk about on those rides home?

Elaine Steele: Just what people talk about. You know, going to the store, cleaning up, cooking dinner, you know what was on the agenda for the remaining of the day. We did not do a lot of talking about civil rights, which many people wanted her to do every time they ran into her, and she really didn't like talking about the Montgomery bus boycott, because it was a painful time in her life, and she was wanting that to have been an example so that people would not repeat it, so that people would not have to go back there. So that was why she forced herself to talk about it. Because it was a training opportunity. But it was not because she enjoyed it. And there were times she really wouldn't talk about it--for example, when she was eating, people would come up to the dinner table, or to the lunch table, and say, "Oh, Miss Parks, please tell us!" And she would look at them and say, "Well, I'm trying to eat now." So people did finally respect that wish and let her eat in peace.

Nancy Cordes: Tell me a little bit about that historic bus ride. Where you with her?

Elaine Steele: I was not. At that time I lived in Detroit, I was nine years old, and I was not on the bus at that time. But I have met people who were on the bus at that time. A friend of hers, Bertha Butler, heard about it and ran to tell Mr. E.D. Nixon, who was the head of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, he in turn called Clifford Durr, who was the white attorney, after he had called first, and the white officers were not going to give him any information. So, he had to call Clifford Durr, the white attorney, and he indeed found out what happened.

Nancy Cordes: What did she tell you about that bus ride and why she decided to do what she did?

Watch: Elaine Steele reflects on Parks' "spontaneous" decision to stay seated

Elaine Steele: Well, it wasn't a decision, it was just an opportunity, because she had been sharing with the students in the NAACP, they were preparing for the district meeting of the NAACP, and they were going to host other students, and they were already working on integrating the libraries, they had explained how the students should indeed be respectful, they dressed up in their Sunday best--at that time, Sunday best really was Sunday best. Today, it's just whatever you feel like putting on, but at that time it was Sunday best. And the students would be very polite, they would go to the library and ask for a book, and the librarian would refuse, and would refuse them, and often would be somewhat rude, and say, "You know you have to go to your neighborhood," and they would say, "Well, we don't have any library in our neighborhood." And she would say, "Well, you have to go to the mobile unit and get your books," and they would say, "But they don't come timely. We don't get them in time to make our reports." And she says, "Well you can't get one here," and that was kind of the gist of the conversation. But they would do that on a regular basis, line after line and student after student, and Mrs. Parks, when she was on the bus, she said, "Well, I am teaching civil disobedience, then I have to demonstrate that too." And she was in a hurry, actually, to get home, to help the students, and when this interruption came, she was, you know, disturbed that the bus driver would ask her to move, when the bus was already crowded in the back, and she wasn't breaking the law, she was sitting where she was supposed to sit, in the colored section, and yet he still wanted her to stand because the white section had filled up. And the law did state that if the bus was already filled and there was no place to stand, that you could remain seated. But there were four people that were sitting in that row--two on one side of the aisle and two on the opposite side of the aisle, and three of them got up to stand, and she remained in her seat. And that was, as you remember, the way the bus driver said, "Are you going to move?" And she remained calm, because she was just had a sweet disposition, and said, "No, I am not." And he said, "Well, I'm going to have you arrested," and she said, "And you may do that." And that was the rest of the story you know.

Nancy Cordes: Do you think that was a spontaneous decision?

Elaine Steele: Absolutely it was. Absolutely it was spontaneous, because she was in a hurry, to get home to help the students preparing for their NAACP district meeting.

Nancy Cordes: What do you think she would think of all this? And this statue in her likeness being placed here in the Capitol?

Elaine Steele: She would be very calm. You know, and she would think, "That is nice." But she wouldn't be overly excited. She more than likely would like to see more positive action during the Voting Rights Act at the Supreme Court, and not as much attention on her. That, she would like to make sure that there were less guns on the street. She would want to see that there was education, better education in our schools. She would like to see that the students were more interested in learning than they are at this time, and that all of these issues that we have, and the bickering that's going on between different groups of people would end, that's what she would want. And that's what she would be focused on. And she would just come, and be pleasant, and thank people for unveiling a statue of her.

Nancy Cordes: I was surprised to learn that there aren't any other full length statues of African Americans here in the Capitol.

Elaine Steele: I did, I wasn't aware of that.

Nancy Cordes: So she's the first.

Elaine Steele: She's the first.

Nancy Cordes: You must be so curious about what it looks like.

Elaine Steele: I am! I am! We've been trying to find out for the longest, what the statue looks like, but no one would assist us.

Nancy Cordes: What would you like it to look like?

Elaine Steele: Well, we had selected an artist that we thought has captured Mrs. Parks' spirit often, and we thought she would be the person to capture that spirit, who was Artis Lane, but she was not selected, another artist, who was selected. So I have no--since he never met Mrs. Parks, I know he would have to study others' works. But people are gifted, and so I am excited to see what his rendition is.

Nancy Cordes: What do you think her legacy is?

Elaine Steele: Well, the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, which was founded by Mrs. Parks and myself, that we motivate youth to reach their highest potential. Mrs. Parks always wanted youth to be educated in a major way, she wanted them to be excited about education, she wanted them to love humanity and love being good citizens, and that's her legacy, and the institute is expanding on that. We are going throughout the world, but we try concentrate primarily within our own communities, and making our young people very respectful, and making them curious, and making them want to learn. Mrs. Parks loved books--every time we would travel, which was often, one of the first places she wanted to visit was the bookstore or a museum.

Nancy Cordes: And how fitting that this statue is being unveiled on what would be her 100th birthday.

Elaine Steele: Well, the month of her 100th birthday, and that is very fitting. It's the centennial year, and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute has many activities that are planned for this year. We'd like to direct people to our website, which is www.rosaparks.org, and they will be able to join us, to see the kind of things that we do and "Pathways to Freedom," where we trade the Underground Railroad through the Civil Rights movement and beyond, and Rosa Parks Learning Center where youth, in fact, mentor us in technology, because I need a little help myself.

Nancy Cordes: What do you think is the main message that she left behind with her action? There were a lot of Civil Rights leaders who made an impact, what do you think it was that her decision did for the movement?

Elaine Steele: Well, I think she demonstrated quiet strength, you know, that she was powerful in her quiet way, and you don't have to be boastful, or boisterous, in order to effect change, that you can be determined and get your point across, you can stick to it, because Mrs. Parks had been in demonstrations before, and she was in demonstrations following the boycott, in Detroit, working with Congressman Conyers, she was in many demonstrations, and demonstrations will continue throughout our lifetime, because there's still so many issues that must be resolved. But the thing is is to stay focused, stay determined, and keep at it.

Nancy Cordes: So she was the living embodiment of civil disobedience?

Elaine Steele: That's right.

Nancy Cordes: Elaine Steele, thank you so much for joining us today, and thank you for joining us on "Face to Face." Be sure to check out "Face the Nation, " this Sunday with Bob Schieffer. See you then.

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