The Thread That Unraveled Segregation

Rosa Parks at her sewing machine in 1956, shortly after the start of the bus boycott.
Rosa Parks at her sewing machine in 1956, shortly after the start of the bus boycott. (By Don Cravens -- Time & Life Pictures Via Getty Images)
By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Rosa Parks wanted badly to attend the wedding. After all, she had done the alterations on Lucy Durr Hackney's wedding dress, which had been handed down to her from a cousin. Over the years, she'd done a lot of sewing for Lucy's parents, who were her best white friends in Montgomery, Ala.

"She was a beautiful seamstress," Hackney recalled yesterday, in a voice that made it seem the seamstress was something of an artist.

Then the officials at St. John's Episcopal Church told Lucy that if Rosa Parks was going to attend the wedding, she would have to wear a uniform -- "like a servant," Hackney says. "Or sit in the balcony."

Parks had risen to national fame during the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, two years before Lucy's wedding.

And now her options were the balcony, or a uniform.

The seamstress politely declined to attend.

"If I would have been braver," Hackney says, "perhaps I would not have gotten married at that church. But the wedding was too far down the line at that point. It was very sad."

The seamstress had come out of a world in which she was told where to sit, where to eat, what stores she could and could not go into. She had come out of a world in which she had to give up her seat to any white person if he didn't have a place to sit on the bus.

Then it changed. The so-called uppity and brazen blacks of Montgomery launched their renowned boycott and won the right -- with the backing of the U.S. Supreme Court -- to desegregate the local buses.

Suddenly, Rosa Parks was a bigger name than all of the grandes dames of the civil rights movement at the midpoint of the 20th century.

And yet, many wondered, who was she?

Life and Look magazines and the newspaper headline writers of the day knew of Mary McLeod Bethune (who had died in 1955, just months before the bus boycott), and they knew of Dorothy Height, both famous women in the male-dominated civil rights movement. But they did not know Parks, who died Monday at the age of 92.

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