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Civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks dies


By Tom BrownTue Oct 25,12:56 AM ET

Rosa Parks, the black seamstress whose refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white man sparked a revolution in American race relations, died on Monday. The U.S. civil rights pioneer was 92.

Shirley Kaigler, Parks' lawyer, said she died while taking a nap early on Monday evening surrounded by a small group of friends and family members.

"She just fell asleep and didn't wake up," Kaigler said.

The cause of death was not immediately known. Medical records released earlier this year, as part of a long-running legal dispute over the use of Parks' name in a song by the hip-hop group OutKast, revealed the she was suffering from progressive dementia. She rarely appeared in public in recent years.

Kaigler said Parks was at home in an apartment complex overlooking the Detroit River and the border with Ontario, Canada, when she died.

"She lived in the neighborhood that I grew up in," Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said of Parks, who lived in the predominantly black city for decades and had a major thoroughfare named after her.

"Everybody knew where her house was. Everybody would walk past and point her out," said Kilpatrick. "She was an amazing individual."

Sen. Edward Kennedy (news, bio, voting record), a Massachusetts Democrat, said in a statement: "The nation lost a courageous woman and a true American hero. A half century ago, Rosa Parks stood up not only for herself, but for generations upon generations of Americans."

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"We are saddened by the passing of Rosa Parks. We rejoice in her legacy, which will never die. In many ways, history is marked as before, and after, Rosa Parks," said civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.

"She sat down in order that we all might stand up, and the walls of segregation came down."

Parks was a 42-year-old seamstress for a Montgomery department store when she caught a bus in downtown Montgomery on December 1, 1955.

Three stops after she got on, a white man boarded and had to stand. To make room for him to sit alone, as the rules required, driver James Blake told Parks and three other black riders, "You all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats."

The other riders complied but Parks did not.

"No. I'm tired of being treated like a second-class citizen," she told Blake. Blake called police, who asked Parks why she didn't move: "I didn't think I should have to. I paid my fare like everybody else."

Parks was not the first black Montgomery bus rider to be arrested for failing to give up a seat, but she was the first to challenge the law. For years before her arrest, Parks and her husband had been active with local civil rights groups, which were looking for a test case to fight the city's segregation laws.

Four days later, she was convicted of breaking the law and fined $10, along with $4 in court costs. That same day, black residents began a boycott of the bus system, led by a then-unknown Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The boycott lasted 381 days, and the legal challenges led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that forced Montgomery to desegregate its bus system and put an end to "Jim Crow" laws separating blacks and whites at public facilities throughout the South.

Parks and her husband, Raymond, moved to Detroit in 1957, after she lost her job and received numerous death threats in Alabama. From 1965 to 1988, she worked as an aide to U.S. Rep. John Conyers (news, bio, voting record), a Michigan Democrat and founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

"For a long time people were a little bit afraid of Rosa Parks because she had created this whole new modern civil rights movement," Conyers told Detroit radio late on Monday. "They didn't know what to expect, and they certainly didn't expect someone that quiet. She sought no limelight; you'd never hear her talking about her own civil rights activities and all the things that she had been in," he said.

"She has saint-like qualities," Conyers added.

Parks' husband died in 1977. The couple had no children and Parks' closest living relatives are her brother's 13 sons and daughters. Parks received the highest U.S. civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1996 and Congressional Gold Medal of Honor in 1999. Recommending the medal for Parks that year, the U.S. Senate described her as "a living icon for freedom in America."

Copyright © 2005 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of Reuters content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Reuters. Reuters shall not be liable for any errors or delays in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon.

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