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When Rosa Parks Visited Annapolis

Two determined locals brought to town “someone out of the pages of history”

Paula Phillips and Rosa Parks, above, and Carl Snowden with Parks, below, during her visit to Annapolis in 1984.
      In 1984, Rosa Parks came to Annapolis. It almost didn’t happen. Two of the people who pulled it together took different paths to overcoming obstacles. Paula Phillips was realistic. Carl Snowden was idealistic. Both were determined.
      Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus, helped initiate the mid-20th century civil rights movement in the U.S. For her courage in 1955 to stay seated in Montgomery, Alabama, she earned the title Mother of the Freedom Movement.
     In Anne Arundel County 30 years later, Snowden founded the Anne Arundel Coalition of Tenants, a group that advocated on behalf of residents of public housing.
     “We had a program coming up for Black History Month, and there was an opportunity to bring Ms. Parks to speak,” Snowden recalls. He set about to find a way to make it happen. “Here was an opportunity to actually meet someone out of the pages of history.”
      He reached out to Phillips, executive director and head of the grants program for Arundel County Commission on Culture and the Arts, which provided funding and support for arts programs.
      “I can remember when I took that call,” Phillips says. “It was an afternoon, and the sun was shining beautifully into my office.”
      Phillips was excited. But would her board of directors share her excitement?
      When she voiced her doubts to Snowden, he delivered what Phillips describes as “one of the most important speeches anyone has given me.”
      Snowden said, as she remembers, “You are a publicly funded organization, and I am presenting you with a request for a program that will benefit the community and is of interest. It is your job to make this happen.” 
      Phillips knew then what she wanted to achieve — but not how to make it happen.
       First she argued significance. “This is a living history event, far more important than funding cookies at a holiday party,” she said.
       Rebuffed, she tried again two weeks later.
       “Then I was warned that if I brought it up again, my job was in jeopardy,” Phillips remembers.
        Then a lesson she’d learned at an arts association conference came to mind.
      “They told us that when working with a board of directors, it’s best to have board members themselves present initiatives to one another. Peer-on-peer associations are good,” she said.
      So she approached two members of the board with Snowden’s application for funding. “They got excited,” Phillips says. “When we had the meeting to discuss applications, the request to help bring Ms. Parks here received a yes vote. Even the director who had originally balked got on board.”
      In February 1984, Rosa Parks spoke at the First Baptist Church in Annapolis.
      “It was jam-packed,” Snowden remembers. “People were mesmerized. She was a very gentle, diminutive woman. At the time, she was 85. She could’ve been anybody’s grandmother. But when she spoke, you could’ve heard a pin drop so many people wanted to hear what she had to say. 
      “For me,” he added “I always wanted to know, Why that day? At the time, the law of the land in Alabama meant sitting on the back of the bus was a daily occurrence.” 
      Listening to Parks, Snowden got his answer.
     “In the summer of 1955, she read a magazine article about the murder of Emmett Till. It included a picture of his mutilated body. She said she was shocked, and that it really affected her.”
      Till was lynched in Mississippi at the age of 14 after being accused of whistling at a white woman in a grocery store.
     “Parks felt a bond with Till’s mother, Mamie Till, who lost her only son. She would later meet her, but at the time of her actions on that bus, they had not met,” Snowden says.
       “When the police officer threatened to arrest her for refusing to give up her seat, she was 42, a seamstress with no children. She thought of the picture of Emmett Till and couldn’t get it out of her mind so she decided to simply say no,” Snowden says.
      Phillips was also in the audience. “Hearing it from the first-person perspective was momentous and inspiring,” she says. “I can’t imagine having that kind of grit.”
     Phillips and Snowden also showed some grit, and that’s why Rosa Parks came to tell her story in Annapolis.