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Meeting the Icons: Flo Kennedy and Rosa Parks

by Patsy Glenn

So many of the high points in my life are framed and on the walls in my computer room. One of those is the program from the 1985 State Conference of the Alabama National Organization for Women. We met in October that year at the Econo Lodge on Battleship Parkway in Mobile. In the midst of the Reagan Revolution, our theme echoed our commitment to continuing the fight: from the back of the bus to the front of the ballot: a woman’s place is everywhere.

Betty Gartman of Mobile, the Conference Facilitator that year, remembers how the committee worked things out. “Both Flo and Rosa were available,” she says. “We had a big meeting and voted for Rosa because she had an Alabama connection. What a hard choice we had that night!

“When we sent Flo the decline – she wrote back that if we paid her flight, she would forego the speaker’s fee. We were ecstatic at her generosity and accepted. We got two fantastic, historical figures. I recall that Rosa Parks gave us a black & white autographed picture as part of her press release packet. We really couldn’t decide what to do with it, and I suggested we give it to Claire Ester, a Mobile NOW member. She was the mother of an adopted child and had been in Memphis the night Martin Luther King was shot.” (photo of Rosa Parks)

Felicia Fontaine of Huntsville, who was elected State President at that conference, recalls that this was Rosa Parks' first visit back to Alabama. “I remember she was apprehensive,” Felicia said. “She hadn’t been back since moving to Michigan. She lost her job in Montgomery and left town before the bus boycott was over."

Rosa Parks was as reserved and dignified as Flo Kennedy was loud and in-your-face. She was the picture of quiet strength, of quiet determination. I remember Ms. Parks seemed shocked at some of Ms. Kennedy’s boisterous remarks.

“The only two gender specific jobs are wet nurse and sperm donor,” Ms. Kennedy told the enchanted and enthusiastic crowd. “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

Florynce Kennedy was impossible to overlook. She made her entrance wearing her ever present cowboy hat, hot pink sunglasses, and sporting brightly painted fingernails that closely resembled talons. Her walking stick was for show because she clearly wasn’t infirm in any way.

I was in my 30’s at that conference, and the mother of a 6th grader. I remember asking a question from the floor while Ms. Kennedy was at the podium. She asked me to stand up which I did. When Ms. Kennedy made a request people complied. “How old is your daughter?” she wanted to know. “  She’s 12,” I answered.

“Well, you’re a young f***ker, aren’t you!” she roared while the audience burst into laugher and I turned a shade darker than her sunglasses. (photo of Flo Kennedy)

That evening she held court in her hotel room, and I was one of the lucky ones invited to join in. We enjoyed wine as she regaled us with her sharp observations and warm heart.

I don’t remember Ms. Parks being a part of our gathering that night or during any of the times we had away from workshops and meetings. I know we were all in awe of her. She was always pleasant and very soft-spoken. She told us that as a young woman she had once served as secretary for a nonprofit because she was the only female and, “I was too timid to speak up.” She outlived her timidity but always maintained her low-key persona. She also shared that the Women’s Political Caucus had been the first group to officially endorse the Montgomery bus boycott – the event that was the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement.

When I approached Ms. Parks with my Conference program, I said, “Thank you for all you’ve done.” She smiled. “I wonder if I could get you to autograph this?” She took my program and wrote, “Rosa Parks” in a firm cursive hand.

When I handed my program to Ms. Kennedy for her to sign, she wrote, “Patsy – Don’t take sh*t!  Love, Flo Kennedy”

And that’s one of the best memories hanging on the wall in my computer room.

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