For Montgomery resident Ann Clemons, what began years ago as a work assignment has now blossomed into a mission to share the life and experiences of Mrs. Rosa Parks with others.
When Clemons walked onto the auditorium stage at Troy University’s Rosa Parks Museum on Friday, clad in 1950s-era clothing from her hat down to her shoes, visitors soaked in her appearance and words as if the late Civil Rights icon herself was before them.
Clemons’ presentation, “The Life and Legacy of Rosa Parks,” was a part of the museum’s celebration of what would have been Mrs. Parks’ 109th birthday. The celebration included free admission to the museum and children’s wing, birthday cupcakes, special music by Duron Hale, story time led by Wanda Battle, a 1950s era Montgomery city bus and arts and crafts for children.
Clemons, a former employee of the Montgomery Convention and Visitors Bureau, first took on the persona of Mrs. Parks as a part of the Alabama Governor’s Conference on Tourism. She, along with others, were recruited to portray legendary native Alabamians at the conference and were fitted with costumes by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Later that year, the group made an encore appearance at the grand opening celebration of Hyundai Motor Manufacturer at the Montgomery Museum at Fine Arts.
“We did not have lines or a part,” she said. “It was more about being staged there to be a part of the events.”
Those events served as a launching pad for Clemons, as she began to field request from other groups and organizations, including Montgomery’s Old Alabama Town. No longer having access to the costume provided by the Shakespeare Festival, Clemons set out to “build her own,” searching flea markets for authentic clothing and accessories from the era.
“The hat, the whole costume, I built and then people started noticing that I actually looked like Rosa Parks,” she said. “I started studying her voice and her convictions. I read all of her books. I developed an actual kindred spirit with Rosa Parks because I believed the same things that she believed. I grew up in the ‘50s, so I was familiar with the climate in which she lived. I really ask for her spirit when I do this. I have to channel her, so to speak, and understand where she was coming from and who she was, what her thinking was. She was not seeking attention; she was seeking justice. I hope that I portray that because that is really my goal.”
Donna Beisel, Assistant Director of the museum, said that more than 400 people joined in Friday’s birthday celebration, and that having Clemons there as Mrs. Parks really resonated with visitors, particularly younger guests.
“Ann’s presentation provides some information that has not been historically taught, so having ‘Rosa Parks’ present her life and activism as a first-hand account really resonated with some of the younger viewers, especially,” Beisel said.
Clemons has learned a lot about the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” in her research through the years, but what she has come to admire most about Mrs. Parks is her perseverance through all of the challenges she faced throughout her life.
“What I learned from her is that the only way you can make change in society is you have to get uncomfortable,” Clemons said. “It was uncomfortable for Mrs. Parks to challenge an entire system. It was uncomfortable for her when she was in jail. She was uncomfortable, but she stood fast to her beliefs throughout her life. I admire her perseverance.”
If Mrs. Parks was still alive today, Clemons believes her message would be one of perseverance and determination in the fight for justice.
“I think her message today would be to stand fast and get organized,” Clemons said. “I think her message would be to not give up or give in, and to do things in a dignified manner. Hold fast to your beliefs and be sure that you speak up and not let injustices or things that are not going to benefit society get past you. We are all in this thing together, and I think that is what she would be about. I think that would be her current day mantra.”