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When Flagler Schools Booted Out Rosa Parks

| April 24, 2010

Rosa Parks Congressional Gold Medal, 2005

Not one to pin on the Flagler County School District's proudest moments. (The Rosa Parks Congressional Gold Medal, 2005, U.S. Mint)

In the winter of 1996, Rosa Parks went on a 40-city speaking tour to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. Parks triggered the boycott, a turning point in the civil rights movement that ended outright discrimination against blacks, when she refused to comply with bus driver James Blake’s demand that she yield her seat to a white man and move to the back of the bus. Montgomery’s city ordinance did not require that blacks ride in the back of buses in 1955. But it did leave it to the discretion of bus drivers to decide whether to let blacks sit up front or not.

For Parks, Flagler County School Superintendent Donn Kaupke was just another Blake in a long run of Blakes she’d confronted throughout her life.

Parks was due to speak in Flagler schools in February 1996. Kaupke refused to let her in. The reason: There was a policy against selling to students during school hours.

A Lesson for the Flagler County School Board

The Kaupke-Parks controversy is relevant again today in light of the Flagler County School Board’s current policy on who may use public school buildings and to what purposes. The policy is under fire since the Flagler Tea Party held its March and April meetings in the Flagler Palm Coast High School cafeteria, angering Tea Party opponents who don’t want to see public school buildings used for partisan political ends. Current school policy allows community groups, including churches and political groups, to use school buildings after hours, for a fee. The board is considering revising the policy. It’s holding a workshop to that end on Tuesday, April 27, at 11 a.m. (in the Government Services Building in Bunnell).

The Kaupke-Parks experience is instructive. Kaupke was only half right when he told Parks’ entourage that a policy prevented Parks from selling her souvenirs. There was such a policy. But it left it explicitly up to the superintendent to decide when and how to enforce it. The policy read: “There shall be no fund drives for any non-school organization nor participation by students during school hours for fund drives for any non-school organization without permission of the superintendent.”

It was entirely in Kaupke’s power to grant that permission for Parks, whose souvenirs were neither gaudy not overly commercial. The CDs, books and t-shirts highlighted her story, which Kaupke himself termed “marvelous.” And the proceeds went to the Detroit-based Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development. The institute is an educational foundation designed to reinforce the dignity and self-empowerment of young blacks.

Parks herself was not a rich woman. Her husband, Raymond, had died in 1977. The couple had no children. She retired in 1988 from a job as an aide to U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., the Michigan Democrat. After that, life became difficult again. She had trouble paying her rent in her later life and even got assistance from a local church to do so when money from the foundation couldn’t make ends meet. Seventeen months before her visit to Flagler and Volusia, Parks was beaten and punched in the face, in her modest Detroit home (five blocks from a boulevard named after her), by a 28-year-old intruder, who made off with $100. Kaupke’s was a different kind of mugging.

So it wasn’t unreasonable for Elaine Steele, a longtime friend of Parks and executive director of the institute, to see elements of racism in Kaupke’s decision.

How Guines Defended Kaupke

“As a black American who fully appreciates the contributions of Rosa Parks, I resent the accusation that Donn Kaupke is a racist,” Jim Guines, who would subsequently be elected to the Flagler County School Board, said to a standing ovation of the Flagler County Rotary Club at the time. “Since retiring here seven years ago I have worked with him and found him to be sensitive and very competent as a superintendent.” (Guines was running for the school board and looking for broad support in a county that had never elected a black man to the board. “I’ll defend that one ’till hell freezes over,” Guines said on Saturday, defending his stance then. “I was there. These people were selling material in the schools. You don’t do that.”)

But if it wasn’t racism, it was a stunning case of thickheadedness from a superintendent with a history of misjudgments. Kaupke began his 14-year tenure in Flagler County on the heels of an affair with an employee while he was a school administrator in Indiana, according to Wayne Blanton of the Florida School Board Association in Tallahassee. Kaupke ended his superintendent career at age 61 under the cloud of sexual harassment charges from Phyllis Edwards, a long-time administrator in Flagler schools, whom the district paid $100,000 in 1998 to settle the case against Kaupke. (Edwards left the district in 2003.)

Behind the Rosa Parks Mystique

The First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Palm Coast’s Gilliard Glover had arranged Parks’ visit in 1996 in conjunction with Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, which hosted a four-day celebration of the “Quiet Strength: Fortieth Anniversary of the Montgomery Boycott.”

Fall all the beatification of the Parks mystique, there was an unquestionable and at times graceless money-grubbing aspect to her tour–a reflection of the grasping nature of her entourage rather than of Parks, who throughout her life was shy and uncomfortable with the adulation bestowed on her. Even though her visit had been scheduled months in advance at Bethune Cookman, Parks’ handlers at the last minute demanded a $10,000 appearance fee to make good on her appearance. The college refused, and Parks went ahead with the event anyway. During the event, a member of Parks’ entourage solicited a $5,000 donation from a Bethune Cookman official, which was also turned down.

Rosa Parks, Inc.

Parks, born on Feb. 4, 1913, died on Oct. 24, 2005 at her home in Detroit. She had been suffering from dementia. “Over the years,” her New York Times obituary noted, “myth tended to obscure the truth about Mrs. Parks. One legend had it that she was a cleaning woman with bad feet who was too tired to drag herself to the rear of the bus. Another had it that she was a “plant” by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The truth, as she later explained, was that she was tired of being humiliated, of having to adapt to the byzantine rules, some codified as law and others passed on as tradition, that reinforced the position of blacks as something less than full human beings.”

Parks continues to be a marketing phenomenon, in death as in life. T-shirts bearing the image of Bus 2857 from Montgomery, a half dozen biographies, coffee mugs, dog tags bearing Parks’ picture and photographs of her all sell briskly on eBay or other sites. A Chevrolet commercial capitalizing on 1950s nostalgia featured one of her images, though there is little nostalgic, to blacks, about the 1950s Parks endured. Even her death is a commodity. The Detroit cemetery where she is buried raised the price of crypts neighboring hers from $45,000 to $60,000.

And, of course, 12 of Parks’ 13 nieces and nephews–the closest family descendants she had–raged over it all from the moment that their aunt’s will revealed that they were left out of virtually all decision-making and profit-sharing in the licensing of her name and image. The beneficiary was Elaine Steele, who’d given Kaupke a piece of her mind.

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1 Response for “When Flagler Schools Booted Out Rosa Parks”

  1. Truth Seeker says:

    Interesting – in the story about the TEA Party, you felt the need to cite the number of “black faces” present – the obvious implication being that the TEA Party group is racist. Why not point out the race of Ms. Parks’ attacker you mentioned while raising questions about Kaupke being a racist? Could it be that it is because he was a 28-year-old black man? Was he a racist?

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