When Charity Fleming Smith met Rosa Parks in Arkansas several years ago, she just had one question for the Civil Rights icon. It was simply: Why did you sit down on the bus?
Smith, former Arkansas assistant commissioner for education, said Parks looked her in the eyes and shot back with a simple answer: “Young lady, I sat down so you could stand up.”
Smith shared the story Monday with an audience of about 1,200 people who attended the Sixth Annual Rosa Parks Women of Courage Breakfast held at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center. The event was organized by Sisters, Inc., the charity outreach arm of the Gamma Tau Omega Chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. Other participants included Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, Phenix City Mayor Eddie Lowe and Col. Jeffery Fletcher, Garrison Commander at Fort Benning.
The event was also an opportunity to recognize three long-time educators for their contributions to the Columbus community. Those honored were Gloria L. Battle, a retired educator and CEO of Battle and Battle Funeral Home; Ann R. McDuffie, headmaster and principal at St. Luke School and Jeanella F. Pendleton, a retired principal from Reese Road Leadership Academy. All three were featured in a video presentation where they shared their experiences as educators and offered aspiring teachers wisdom that they gained along the way.
Before speaking, Smith was introduced by her sister State Rep. Carolyn Hugley, who described her as the daughter of Arkansas teachers and “someone who was born to be an educator.” Smith, who holds a doctorate in education from the University of Arkansas Little Rock, was most influenced by their mother who was passionate about education and taught her not to be guided by the degrees that she earned, but by her heart.
Smith now runs a college-prep program in Arkansas called Education at Fetterman and Associates. She launched it to address low SAT and ACT test scores among African-American students. Smith is also a consultant for the ACT and tries to inspire children wherever she goes.
Smith told the crowd it was time for people to stop being quitters and to stand-up on behalf of children who are falling through the cracks. She said children are going to school hungry and unprepared to learn. “Why? Because somebody quit. Somebody didn’t take a stand. Somebody decided that these were some kids that we could just expend,” she said. “As I always tell educators, parents send you the best kids they have. They don’t keep the good ones in the closet. And so you have to take a stand and you have to make a difference.”
Smith said Parks showed how one person could make a difference and it’s time for others to follow in her footsteps.
“Rosa Parks stood for excellence and excellence is a result of carrying more than others think is wise, and risking more than others think is safe, and expecting more than others think is possible, and dreaming more than others think is practical,” she said.
Sister’s Inc., which began in 2005, has awarded $20,000 in scholarships and donated $40,000 to the Mildred Terry Library since its inception, said Kathy Jones, the organization’s event chairman. Three years ago, the group launched a program that helps first-generation college students prepare for college.
In the audience Monday was the first graduate of the program, Ajianna Mack, a 16-year-old senior at Central High School. Mack said she is graduating a year early due to an advanced credit program and plans to attend the University of Alabama-Birmingham in the fall and study pre-med.
“I’m nervous knowing everybody expects a lot of me,” said the shy teenager following the breakfast. “But I know I’ll make it because I’ll do the best that I can do.”