Rosa Parks has been immortalized as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement”. That fateful day in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama helped changed the nation, eventually moving us closer towards “a more perfect union.”
Unfortunately, that concept of “a more perfect union” has been lost on Parks’ relatives and perhaps the state of Michigan, where the civil rights icon had long resided until her death in 2005 at the age of 92.
According to court papers filed in the Michigan Supreme Court by Steven Cohen, who represents Parks’ caretaker Elaine Steele and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, which Steele helped Parks create, attorneys John Chase Jr. and Melvin Jefferson Jr., coincidentally appointed by the state, are charging the estate valued at $372,000 by most accounts a whopping $243,000. In addition, Guernsey’s Auctioneers are standing by in New York to auction off Parks’ memorabilia, which includes the hat she wore that fateful day in 1955, as well as presidential medals and other items.
Even more disturbing, according to attorney Lawrence Pepper, who represents Parks’ 13 nieces and nephews who contested the will naming Steele and the Institute as beneficiaries, Parks gave the coat she wore that day to a niece in the 1960s or 1970s who, not realizing its historical value, got rid of it. Cohen is disputing that claim but what’s most unsettling is that the situation is even here in the first place. One would think that those closest to her would have recognized her significance in the struggle for human rights and equality in the United States the most.
When it comes to preserving African-American history and culture, why are we always on the losing end? Why can’t these relatives and friends put aside their own personal selfishness and live true to the spirit of those they represent and look out for the greater good? At the end of the day, who would not think that items such as the coat and hat Parks wore the day she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, as was then deemed by law, and move to the back of the bus should not be in an institution for all to see?
Unfortunately this is not the first time that the estate of Rosa Parks has been in the news. Even before the civil rights icon passed away in 2005, she was at the center of another controversy, with her representatives at the time suing the Atlanta rap duo OutKast for using her name for their song “Rosa Parks” on their highly acclaimed album Aquemini, released in 1998. Johnnie Cochran was even retained to represent her estate. In 2003, the case was settled and actually $227,000 of the estate’s current value of $372,000 came from that agreement.
For many in the hip-hop community, the actions on behalf of Parks illustrated the ongoing disconnect between the civil rights and hip-hop generations. OutKast named the song after the civil rights icon in homage, not out of disrespect. Although, in theory, one cannot argue with a financial settlement intended to help educate the youth regarding the Parks’ significance, ultimately, the matter should have never made it to court. At some point between 1999, when the case was filed, and 2005, when it was settled, there should have been a meeting of the minds and cooler heads should have prevailed.
The greatest problem, however, is that we, as a people and a culture, don’t value our own family legacies, even when news headlines and history books consistently affirm them. In February, Lena Horne’s family auctioned off parts of her estate that, in my opinion, should have been offered to various museums. A gelatin silver print of the entertainment and civil rights icon taken by Carl Van Vechten sold to a private collector for nearly $4,000. One of her Louis Vuitton traveling trunks and an original painting by African-American artist Charles Alston, who taught Jacob Lawrence, were each purchased for $20,000.
Could that trunk not have been donated to a fashion museum to indicate that black women have long been on the cutting edge of fashion? Surely that Charles Alston painting should be hanging in a museum.
Selling the pair of gold cuffs with gemstones that Horne’s granddaughter Jenny Lumet wore to the Academy Awards during a special tribute to Lena Horne is even more perplexing. If they were important enough to wear to an Oscars tribute in honor of your grandmother, why sell them for $6,000?
If those at the top don’t realize their historical and cultural relevance, then what about the rest of us?
In recent years, Roots-inspired television programs, not to mention the explosion of genealogy research, has made many of us who don’t have relatives of Rosa Parks’ or Lena Horne’s stature more aware of our personal history but we have a long way to go.
As tragic and, dare I say, embarrassing as this Rosa Parks’ estate business is, it should serve as a cautionary tale to those of us charged with guarding our own family legacies. We should pay more attention to what that legacy is and how it should be passed down before a significant death occurs. If we don’t care, how can we expect others to?