Rosa Parks’s Death Stirs Up Bitter Feud Over Her Estate

Family Fights Caregivers To Control the Legacy Of Civil-Rights Icon

November 16, 2005

DETROIT — A long-simmering feud between the family of civil-rights icon Rosa Parks and the people who cared for her at the end of her life has erupted into a court fight over her estate.

Even before Mrs. Parks died at 92 last month, family members were upset about decisions her representatives were making. Some relatives were troubled by a lawsuit, filed on Mrs. Parks’s behalf, over the rap duo OutKast’s use of her name in a song. They saw it as a shakedown for money by Mrs. Parks’s handlers. The relatives also were unhappy with deals to put Mrs. Parks’s name or likeness on items including long-distance telephone cards and figurines.

Now the acrimony has spilled into the courtroom where Mrs. Parks’s will is being handled. Her will and trust name her longtime assistant, Elaine Steele, and a retired judge, Adam Shakoor, as her personal representatives, or administrators, of the estate. But last week Mrs. Parks’s nephew, William McCauley, filed a petition in Wayne County Probate Court in Detroit demanding that he be named her representative instead. His lawyer, Darren Findling, says Mr. McCauley plans to contest the will, signed in 2003, arguing that Mrs. Parks was mentally incapable of signing it and that her caregivers exerted undue influence.

The court fight is the culmination of a feud that Mrs. Parks tried to patch up during her lifetime. Family members say that caregivers, including Ms. Steele, took advantage of Mrs. Parks for monetary gain. But others, including Mr. Shakoor, disagree. They say that Ms. Steele and those who oversaw Mrs. Parks’s affairs loved and protected her, especially after she began suffering from dementia in recent years. “She was well taken care of,” says former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, who was named a court-appointed attorney for Mrs. Parks last year.

“I am still in a grieving period for myself,” says Ms. Steele, who declined to comment further citing the advice of her attorney.

The value of Mrs. Parks’s estate has not been made public because she placed her assets in a trust designed to keep the details and beneficiaries private. The personal representatives, known as executors in other states, will be entitled to fees from the estate.

Shirley Kaigler, a lawyer for Ms. Steele and Mr. Shakoor, says the size of the estate is not “substantial.” She speculates that family members “may believe there are extraordinary funds.” Family members say that more than money, they’re interested in controlling decisions involving Mrs. Parks’s legacy.

Rhea McCauley, Mrs. Parks’s niece, says her plea to the caregivers is: “Please don’t misuse our aunt in death as you did in life.”

Four days after Mrs. Parks’s funeral earlier this month, about 35 family members gathered to discuss their emotions and the legal issues surrounding her death. They’ve been concerned that inappropriate commercial use of her name and image could threaten her legacy.

Future commercial use of Mrs. Parks’s image could be lucrative for the estate because of laws limiting unauthorized uses, says Marc Mayer, an entertainment attorney in Los Angeles. Gregory Reed, Mrs. Parks’s longtime attorney, says that her estate “could be very valuable” if a good legal team is put together to handle intellectual property. “Look at how the Elvis Presley estate was enhanced,” he says. “They have a whole shopping center in Memphis promoting his name, likeness and image.”

The family also has questioned the way Mrs. Parks’s nonprofit institute and her personal funds have been managed. The institute, which trains young people in leadership skills and takes them to civil-rights sites, has been sued by creditors and hit with tax liens. In 2002, Mrs. Parks received eviction notices for unpaid rent. The landlord eventually allowed her to live rent-free, citing her service to the nation.

Before her dementia set in, Mrs. Parks sought to ease the friction between her loved ones and her caregivers. In 1997, she wrote a letter to “family and spouses” saying Ms. Steele was “as close to me as a daughter.” She asked the family to accept Ms. Steele’s role in her life.

Ms. Steele met Mrs. Parks decades ago, when they were neighbors in Detroit and started riding the bus together to work. Many people who know Ms. Steele, now 61, acknowledge that she was a tough, protective overseer. “Everyone wanted a piece of Rosa Parks, and she played the bad cop,” says historian Douglas Brinkley, who wrote a biography of Mrs. Parks in 2000.

Ever since 1955, when Mrs. Parks refused to surrender her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., relatives have had to share her with the world. Her seven-hour funeral, orchestrated in large measure by Ms. Steele, was a reminder of this. There were more than 30 speakers, many of them Democratic politicians. Three family members spoke for a total of less than 15 minutes. Ms. Steele was one of the final eulogists.

Some relatives had trouble getting into the church because of confusion over the guest list. When they did get in, many seats in pews reserved for family were filled by others who claimed to be relatives. “A funeral is a family burying their loved one,” says Arthur Crowell, 61, a cousin of Mrs. Parks. “All the attention was on movie stars and politicians. It was kind of disgusting.”

Mrs. Parks and her husband, Raymond, arrived in Detroit 48 years ago at the invitation of her only sibling, Sylvester McCauley, who lived here. Mrs. Parks had endured threats in Montgomery, and she and her husband had lost their jobs. At first she was a seamstress here. Then, starting in 1965, she worked as a receptionist for Rep. John Conyers. She retired in 1988.

Mrs. Parks didn’t have children, but her brother and his wife had 13 sons and daughters, all of whom are still alive and are named in the petition filed in probate court last week. Family members say she helped raise them.

In 1987, Mrs. Parks founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development and Ms. Steele was named director. Over time, Ms. Steele also became Mrs. Parks’s assistant, overseeing her affairs. In her later years, Mrs. Parks was “completely monopolized from the top of her head to her toenails” by Ms. Steele, says Rhea McCauley. Mrs. Parks gave Ms. Steele durable power of attorney in 1998.

When Ms. McCauley tried to win guardianship of her aunt in 2002, a judge named attorney Gregory Hamilton to determine Mrs. Parks’s wishes and competency. Mr. Hamilton says that Mrs. Parks was unable to speak but could shake and nod her head. He says he believes she understood his questions. When he asked her if she wanted to be cared for by Ms. McCauley, she shook her head no. Mr. Hamilton says he was satisfied that Mrs. Parks should remain in Ms. Steele’s care. The judge agreed.

Much of the family’s ire is focused on the lawsuit filed in 1999 involving the OutKast song. The suit, demanding $5 billion in damages, claimed that “Rosa Parks,” a song with explicit lyrics, misappropriated her name. Besides the title, the only reference to Mrs. Parks is the refrain “everybody move to the back of the bus.” Mr. Reed, who represented Mrs. Parks in the case, says his client was mentally sound in 1999 and said in writing that she wanted to sue. He says the suit, taking on a large corporation, should be celebrated as a vital part of Mrs. Parks’s legacy. “It was another courageous act, only this time in a contemporary setting,” he says.

But her relatives argue that the Mrs. Parks they knew would have never gotten involved in a petty demand for money. “She was like Mother Teresa — gentle, sweet, loving. She wouldn’t have sued anybody for anything,” says Mr. Crowell, the cousin. Ms. McCauley agrees, recalling that Mrs. Parks was very forgiving of an intruder who robbed and beat her in her home in 1994.

This year an undisclosed settlement over the OutKast case was paid to Mrs. Parks by Sony BMG Music Entertainment. The agreement also calls for Sony to produce a tribute CD and TV special featuring OutKast and honoring Mrs. Parks. “Had she lived another 20 years, she’d have been well taken care of for the rest of her life,” says Mr. Archer, the former mayor.

The family got no money from the settlement, members say. Lonnie McCauley, Mrs. Parks’s 31-year-old great-nephew, says he wants to contact OutKast to explain that the family didn’t support the suit. “I want to thank OutKast because I know they intended the song as a tribute,” he says.

Mrs. Parks was interred in a mausoleum and there are plans to move her late husband and mother into it. They are currently buried in a plot with Mrs. Parks’s brother and his wife, the parents of the surviving nieces and nephews. Family members are unhappy about the mausoleum, believing Mrs. Parks wanted to be buried in the family plot.

Some relatives say they don’t want to dwell on the controversies. Patricia Foust, 56, a cousin, read a poem during the memorial service. She had expected to take one of the waiting limousines from the church to the gravesite, but all the limos were full. So she and a dozen other relatives ended up on a city bus pressed into service.

The bus was near the end of the procession and arrived at the cemetery after the gravesite ceremony ended. Ms. Foust says she was all right with that because, while stuck in traffic, she created her own private moment in honor of her cousin. In the front row of the bus, a black ribbon and flowers had been placed on the window seat as a tribute to Mrs. Parks.

“I just looked at that seat,” says Ms. Foust, “and I smiled.”

-The Wall Street Journal

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