BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP — The niece of civil rights icon Rosa Parks didn’t know about her “Auntie Rosa’s” part in American history until she was almost a teenager, even though she saw her aunt regularly.
“I was in a middle school history class, and the teacher was speaking about Martin Luther King and mentioned Rosa Parks,” said Shirley McCauley, 57, of Louisville, Ky. “The pictures they had of her weren’t very good, but I said, ‘That looks like Auntie Rosa,’” she told an audience of about 130 people Saturday at the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey in the Newtonville section of the township.
Parks, who died at 92 in 2005, is best known for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955, when the driver insisted she and three others move so a white man could take their row of seats. Her action sparked a national civil rights movement.
At age 42, her act of civil disobedience launched the Montgomery bus boycott, which lasted 381 days and was organized by a young Martin Luther King Jr. It ended when the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation illegal in December 1956.
“The era I grew up in, children were not privy to all information,” she said, adding that her aunt was a quiet, humble person who didn’t talk about her achievements. But as McCauley got older, she had many conversations with Parks about her experiences, she said.
McCauley, whose father, Sylvester McCauley, was Parks’ brother, spoke during the New Jersey unveiling of the U.S. Postal Service’s Rosa Parks stamp. Newtonville Postmaster Melanie Maturano, of Folsom, said about 1,500 Rosa Parks stamps were sold during the event. Many were put on envelopes and given a collectible cancellation that included the image of the historic bus.
McCauley said many people mistakenly believe Parks was sitting in the white section that day and refused to leave it.
“She was sitting in the last row of the black section (closest to the white section),” McCauley said.
Parks, who had no children and was very close to her many nieces and nephews, had a long history of trouble with that particular bus driver, McCauley said.
“If a black person stepped up (in the front) to pay, they had to walk down to the back door to enter,” she said. “This driver would sometimes take off and keep going. Sometimes he wouldn’t stop to pick her up. He was a mean guy.”
McCauley said Parks had green eyes and very light skin, and could have passed for white. “She chose to be black,” she said.
Parks was the secretary of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and was working diligently to figure out a strategy for civil rights,” said McCauley, who is working on a book about Parks as seen by close family members, “Lessons for My Family: Remembering Rosa Parks.”
The day Parks made her historic stand, she was on her way home from work as a seamstress and had just had enough. She quietly refused to move, McCauley said.
In the audience were people from all walks of life who admire Parks, and several people who met her when the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlantic County brought her to Atlantic City in 1990 to help heal a racial divide in the city and region. She spoke at what was then called TropWorld Casino and Entertainment Resort, now Tropicana Casino and Resort.
They included Kaleem Shabazz, president of the Masjid Muhammad mosque in Atlantic City and a member of the Bridge of Faith group; Jane Stark, executive director of The Sam Azeez Museum of Woodbine Heritage in Woodbine; and Dr. Juanita High, an educator who was instrumental in integrating New Jersey colleges and universities in the 1960s and 1970s, and was a longtime executive assistant to former Richard Stockton College President Vera King Farris.
“Rosa Parks was gracious and very refined, unassuming and humble,” said High. “In her quiet, beautiful manner was a lot of power. You could look in her eyes and see this is a powerful woman.”
“What people don’t know is how politically active she was,” said Bettie Reina, of the Milmay section of Buena Vista. After Parks moved to Detroit, she worked for many years for U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., Reina said.
Even museum founder and director Ralph Hunter, of Atlantic City, learned something new, he said. He hadn’t heard the story of how blacks paid their fare in the front of the bus, had to leave the bus and re-enter in the back, and were sometimes left at the curb after paying.
“That story really touched my heart,” he said.
Parks had to leave the South because of threats to her life, McCauley said. She and her husband, Raymond, settled in Detroit with her extended family.
The national unveiling of the stamp was at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., on Feb. 4, where the Rosa Parks bus is on exhibit.
“I got to go on the actual bus and sit in the seat she sat in,” McCauley said. “It was quite moving.”
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