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Opinion: What would Rosa Parks do?

Danielle McGuire, Kim Trent and Isaiah McKinnon

In a few weeks, the class of 2020 will graduate during a global pandemic; the first in more than a century. After a spring marked by cancellations and quarantines, many ceremonies will be held online if at all. These graduating seniors deserve our sympathy and support. Born in the aftermath of 9/11, they were in elementary school during the 2008 mortgage crisis. They came of age during our country’s longest military conflict in Afghanistan; bore witness to a global refugee disaster caused by warfare, hunger and climate change; and were swept up in a turbulent and divisive presidential election in 2016. They’ve suffered through school shootings, natural disasters and teacher strikes.

Now a virus threatens their future. 

If ever there was a role model for the class of 2020 to follow, it is civil rights icon and fellow Detroiter, Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks was only 5 years old when the 1918 flu pandemic ravaged the globe. Spared by influenza, her family in Alabama survived terror campaigns by the Ku Klux Klan and the scourge of lynching through the 1920s. She finished high school during the Great Depression and fought segregation during the Cold War era, sparking the modern civil rights movement. When she moved to Detroit in 1957 to escape death threats after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, she fought against — and personally survived — racial segregation and economic inequality. For decades, she never wavered from her conviction that education and community service were crucial to achieving justice and personal security. 

Scribbled on the back of a program from St. Matthews AME church in Detroit, Parks quoted scripture from Luke 5: 1-11: “Launch out into the deep, let down your nets for the draw.” Her commitment to human dignity enabled her to fight through pandemics, poverty and racial terror. But she didn’t do it alone. She “launched out into the deep” by building and nurturing relationships with her neighbors, friends, and supporters — and they helped fill the community’s nets. 

Rosa Parks sits in the front of a Montgomery, Alabama bus in December 1956. Her refusal to give up her seat a year earlier led the U.S. Supreme Court to declare the city's segregated seating law illegal.

This is what we must do for the class of 2020. 

Since 1980, the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation awarded upwards of 1,500 scholarships, totaling more than $2 million, to high school graduates throughout Michigan who embodied the spirit of Rosa Parks. Those recipients are today’s teachers, artists, scientists, engineers, lawyers, business leaders and medical professionals working on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle. 

Like so many other nonprofit and charity organizations, the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation canceled its annual fundraiser, in this case our 40th Anniversary Gala, which sustains our ability to award scholarships because of the pandemic. For those looking to make a difference during this uncertain time, ask yourself, “What would Rosa Parks do?” and consider supporting the class of 2020 — our next generation of scholars and doers. 

We may not be able to host our 40th Anniversary fundraiser, and graduating seniors may not be able to get their diplomas in person. But we can still celebrate and honor students’ achievements and work together to fill their nets with praise and scholarship money. The Class of 2020 deserves nothing less. What they have already endured boggles the mind. Like Rosa Parks, they are survivors. We need these future doctors, teachers, and thinkers to help lead us into a better future. 

To support the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation, please click here.

Danielle McGuire is an author and historian.

Kim Trent is president of the board of trustees for the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation

Isaiah McKinnon is an associate professor at the University of Detroit and former chief of police and deputy mayor.

The authors are trustees of the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation.