'I thank you for not moving' —Oprah's eulogy for Rosa Parks
One of the greatest ever eulogies, delivered by one of the world's greatest orators, for one of America's greatest women. On this day in 2005.
Rosa Parks was farewelled on October 31st, 2005, at the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington DC at the age of 92. Even in distant Melbourne, we knew that she was a great woman. She was, as my parents taught me growing up, the woman who refused to give up her seat on the bus, the woman who sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the woman who inspired and mobilised Martin Luther King Jr and, the woman honoured by Congress as ‘the first lady of civil rights’.
In 2005, I would have been surprised that Oprah Winfrey, the queen of daytime talk television, would be chosen to farewell such a titan. But collecting speeches over these last seven years has revealed to me that she is one of the greatest orators, a master of timing, construction, anecdote, delivery, emotion. Her Cecil B de Mille acceptance at the Golden Globes was delivered at the height of #MeToo, and its an incredible speech, especially the section about Recy Taylor:
I want to express gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault, because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue.
They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers, and farm workers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia, engineering, medicine, and science. They’re part of the world in tech and politics and business. They’re our athletes in the Olympics, and they’re our soldiers in the military.
And there’s someone else: Recy Taylor. A name I know and I think you should know too. In 1944 Recy Taylor was a young wife and mother, walking home from a church service she’d attended in Abbeville, Alabama, when she was abducted by six white men, raped and left blindfolded by the side of the road coming home from church.
They threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone, but her story was reported to the NAACP where a young worker by the name of Rosa Parks became the lead investigator on her case and together they sought justice. But justice wasn’t an option in the era of Jim Crow. The men who tried to destroy her were never persecuted.
She died ten days ago, just shy of her 98th birthday. She lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power to those men. But their time is up. Their time is up!
It’s great on the page, but it’s transcendent as a snippet of audio or video. I put it #3 in my 25 Best speeches of 2018.
Oprah mentions Rosa Parks in the Golden Globes speech, but her eulogy is a work of art too. It’s a short speech, just over four minutes, and given the circumstances and the size the legend, she manages to personalise and to inject humour into the opening:
I grew up in the South, and Rosa Parks was a hero to me long before I recognized and understood the power and impact that her life embodied. I remember my father telling me about this coloured woman who had refused to give up her seat. And in my child's mind, I thought, 'She must be really big.' I thought she must be at least a hundred feet tall. I imagined her being stalwart and strong and carrying a shield to hold back the white folks.
The audience laughs at that, and switches into the personal. Of course Oprah has met Rosa Park, and she’s had a chance to thank her.
And then I grew up and had the esteemed honor of meeting her. And wasn't that a surprise. Here was this petite, almost delicate lady who was the personification of grace and goodness. And I thanked her then. I said, 'Thank you,' for myself and for every coloured girl, every coloured boy, who didn't have heroes who were celebrated.
I thanked her then. And after our first meeting I realized that God uses good people to do great things. And I'm here today to say a final thank you, Sister Rosa, for being a great woman who used your life to serve, to serve us all.
A beautiful sidestep from the person to person thank you, to the larger thank you, the one she is offering on behalf of the country, the world, the generations that followed. And Oprah knows how to rhapsody on courage:
That day that you refused to give up your seat on the bus, you, Sister Rosa, changed the trajectory of my life and the lives of so many other people in the world. I would not be standing here today nor standing where I stand every day had she not chosen to sit down. I know that. I know that. I know that. I know that, and I honor that. Had she not chosen to say we shall not - we shall not be moved.
This would be a written speech, but Oprah has decades of ‘reading and not sounding like reading’ experience. The words bubble and tumble, she pauses, but never extravagantly (except for laughter or applause), and yet the emotion is maximised, and there is a forcefulness to it too, that Rosa Parks strength has created Oprah’s strength. The conclusion is something special, and I note, as I often note in excellent eulogies, that Oprah shifts to the second person ‘you’ here, and away from the less emotive ‘she’.
So I thank you again, Sister Rosa, for not only confronting the one white man whose seat you took, not only confronting the bus driver, not only for confronting the law, but for confronting history, a history that for 400 years said that you were not even worthy of a glance, certainly no consideration. I thank you for not moving. And in that moment when you resolved to stay in that seat, you reclaimed your humanity and you gave us all back a piece of our own. I thank you for that.
And in that moment when you resolved to stay in that seat, you reclaimed your humanity and you gave us all back a piece of our own. I thank you for that. I thank you for acting without concern. I often thought about what that took, knowing the climate of the times and what could have happened to you, what it took to stay seated. You acted without concern for yourself and made life better for us all. We shall not be moved.
I marvel at your will.
I celebrate your strength to this day.
And I am forever grateful, Sister Rosa, for your courage, your conviction.
I owe you — to succeed.
I will not be moved.
It gets me every time. Not many people can speak like that. For mine, Oprah is up there with the very best — Obama, Clinton, Shirley Chisholm, Martin Luther King — for pure speaking talent.
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One of the saddest and most powerful episodes of the podcast. Subscribe here.
The Head of the Martin Luther King Jr Research Centre, Dr Clayborne Carson was also a guest on the podcast talking about ‘I Have a Dream’