(The following is a guest post by Lee Ann Potter, director of Educational Outreach for the Library of Congress.)
Born Rosa Louise McCauley on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Ala., the civil rights activist would have been 102 years old today.
It is impossible to imagine how many birthday wishes she received in her 92 years of life, but among the items in the Rosa Parks Collection that recently arrived at the Library of Congress on a 10-year loan from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, there are hundreds of birthday messages–many from school children–sent over a span of nearly 20 years. From 1986 until her passing in 2005, scores of kindergarteners to high school seniors from across the country used the occasion of her birthday to both wish her well and to thank her for the inspirational role she played in the civil rights movement.
Their notes, drawings, songs, poems and essays reflect varying degrees of knowledge about her refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in December 1955. Some mention that it led to a year-long, city-wide boycott ending when the city of Montgomery lifted its law requiring segregation on public buses. Others, like a first grader from Wright Elementary School in Des Moines, Iowa, indicate awareness that she went to jail for her actions. In 2000, Morgan wrote, “Dear Mrs. Parks, I like you. I am sorry that you had to go to jail. Happy Birthday. Love, Morgan.”
Some of the students point to the bus boycott as the beginning of the modern civil rights movement and to Rosa Parks as its catalyst. Their pride in her is evident. For example, in 2000, a fifth-grader named Ashley from Floyds Knobs Elementary School in Floyds Knobs, Ind., signed a class card to Mrs. Parks with, “Way to fight for your rights! You go girl!” And a 1994 package from seventh-graders in Ohio included dozens of hand drawn cards, including one that on the outside reads “Hey Brave Lady Who Wouldn’t Get Off of the Bus” and on the inside concludes with “Since it’s Your Birthday We’re Making a Fuss.”
Quite a few student notes to Mrs. Parks explain that they had either read about her or learned about her actions from their teachers in school. Some suggest a real familiarity and friendliness; a few invite her to visit their school, others tell her to give them a call.
Virtually all of the cards and letters reflect genuine emotions–from appreciation to admiration; from interest to respect. And many describe how her actions encourage them to make the world better. For example, in the very first folder is a note from third-grader ‘Mark’ from Norcross Elementary School in Norcross, Ga., who wished her a happy birthday and announced, “One day I would like to c[h]ange the world like you did.”
Not only do the students tell Mrs. Parks to enjoy her birthday celebration, but a few tell her about their celebration of her special day. In 1990, a hand drawn card and a letter sent by Mrs. Murphy’s first grade class in Indiana describes the chocolate cake that the class had eaten–and a photograph of the students devouring it in Mrs. Parks’ honor is also included.
The bulk of the drawings in the collection are of buses, and most resemble the yellow school bus variety, certainly reflecting student experience. A few are accompanied by thoughtful, original poetry or song lyrics. For her 87th birthday, she received an anonymous card containing the following creatively spelled rhyme, “Happy Birthday to a spchle laddy [special lady]. Roses are red, Vi[o]lets are blue, civil rights are good for you.”
Importantly, among the children’s messages are a few cover letters from their teachers. While they describe class activities and summarize the contents of the students’ cards and letters, many explain what motivated them to introduce students to Rosa Parks, and share their personal sentiments. A hand written letter on flowery stationary, by Mrs. Yellin from New York in 1995, that accompanied class photos and drawings, explained, “My children were touched by your story. . . They also wanted to thank you for your strength and commitment. We all do.”
Yes, we do. Thank you, Mrs. Parks, and Happy Birthday!