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“Rosa Parks Beyond the Bus: Life, Lessons, and Leadership” By: H. H. Leonards; Foreword by Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie

“Rosa Parks Beyond the Bus: Life, Lessons, and Leadership”

Author: H. H. Leonards; Foreword by Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie

Publisher: R. H. Boyd Publishing Corp.

Nashville TN, 2022

Price: $

Pages: 192

Friend’s Memoir Sheds New Light on the Life of Rosa Parks

“Beyond the Bus” is a narrow memoir, not of the life of H.H. Leonards but specifically of her deep friendship with Mrs. Rosa Parks, things she learned about Mrs. Parks that few knew, and the kinds of wisdom Mrs. Parks had to impart.

On August 31, 1994, Leonards was at home in Washington D. C. in The Mansion on O Street—a combination luxury/boutique hotel and nonprofit that she had established in 1980—when she received a call from Brother Willis Edwards of the NAACP. Edwards knew of the mansion’s “Heroes-in-Residence” program and asked if Mrs. Parks might stay there gratis and privately.

Mrs. Parks, 81 years old, had been attacked in her home in Detroit and would not return to it. Over the years Mrs. Parks had routinely turned down opportunities to cash in on her fame and was, surprisingly, essentially broke.

Mrs. Parks stayed for a number of months and then, over a period of ten years, whenever she was in Washington. The Rev. Jesse Jackson attests that he visited Mrs. Parks “many, many times” while she was at her “home-away-from-home.”

So, it is odd that there is no mention of the Mansion on O Street or H. H. Leonards in “Rosa Parks” by Douglas Brinkley, who writes that after the attack Parks moved immediately into Riverfront Towers in Detroit and told him: “I feel very much at peace here.”

Likewise, Leonards and The Mansion on O Street do not appear in “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” by Jeanne Theoharis.

Biography can be an uncertain and confusing genre.

In any case, now, years after Mrs. Parks’ death in 2005, Leonards has written a memoir of that friendship.

The work is anecdotal, loosely chronological, organized around episodes and memories, seemingly as they occur to Leonards.

Her description of Mrs. Parks is in harmony with what we think we know. She was a deeply loving and forgiving person. She was modest, self-effacing. She urged others to continue the struggle, never give up.

Leonards describes Parks’ meetings with presidents and vice-presidents, baseball great Curt Flood, Nelson Mandela and Pope John Paul II. Mrs. Parks loved children and received, we are told, “thousands and thousands” of letters from children. Leonards tells us she answered every single one.

Over the years, the two women talked countless times, travelled together, prayed together. There are intimate details; for example, they often held hands, and Mrs. Parks had beautiful hands.

Leonards reminds the reader that Mrs. Parks was not sitting in the white section of the bus when she was asked to move. She was in the colored section but, when more whites boarded, she was asked to go farther back in the bus. That was when she exercised the power of refusal; she had not planned to be arrested that day.

When it became known that the now-famous bus was to be restored, Mrs. Parks wittily remarked, “In my life I rode on every bus in Montgomery, so, in essence, all the buses should be preserved.”

There are some mildly startling revelations.

Mrs. Parks, we are told, “was a proud, active member of the Black Panther Party.”

“One of her favorite personal moments was the opportunity to talk at length with Malcolm X.” He was a “personal hero.” Parks “protested against the Vietnam War.”

Leonards says: “Not many people know that she did not believe in what Dr. King believed in, which was non-violence.”

It is on the public record that she testified against Clarence Thomas at his confirmation hearings, “focusing on his dismal civil rights record.”

Mrs. Parks became a vegetarian and attributed her longevity—92, to her diet.

A seamstress, she loved well-made clothes and was a big collector of shoes. Leonards does not say how many.

In a surprising revelation, Leonards tells the reader that “she opened up to me about her having been raped during the attack in her Detroit home, although she didn’t use the word.”

One may believe this assertion or not.

Some sections create doubt about the fact checking here. For example, Leonards tells of everyone’s joy when Mrs. Parks was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom—our country’s highest civilian honor.

But she tells us Parks also received the Congressional Medal of Honor—which as we know, is given for heroism in combat—confusing this award with the Congressional Gold Medal.

Oddly, Brother Willis we are told, was surprised no health insurance came with this gold medal.

One may quibble with details in a book like this but, still, we wish that more individuals who by some chance come to know famous but somewhat reclusive figures would put down their memories on paper. Of some special people we hunger to know more.

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors. 

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.