The Human Rights Warrior

Jennifer Prestholdt

Jennifer Prestholdt
Minneapolis, Minnesota,
February 25
Human rights lawyer, wife, and mother of three. (Not necessarily in that order.) I write about my experiences in fighting for human rights and how I am trying to bring those lessons home to my kids. Join our journey at, Humanrightswarrior on facebook and @JPrestholdt on Twitter. All material on this blog is © Jennifer Prestholdt, 2011, 2012


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FEBRUARY 16, 2012 8:15AM

Me and Rosa Parks on the Ellis Island Ferry

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(Image source)

My oldest son is studying the life of Rosa Parks in his 6th grade history class.  "I actually met Ms. Rosa Parks once," I say.  He's already halfway up the stairs, heading back to the sanctuary of his room. "Did I ever tell you about that?"  On the cusp of his teens, he has no interest in being trapped by a pontificating mother.  "Yes," he replies.  He pauses, half-turned towards me, left leg on a higher step, poised for flight.  I see my opening and I take it.


In 1986, my grandfather Orville Prestholdt was recognized with an Ellis Island Medal of Honor for his contributions as a "Norwegian activist".  I was a sophomore in college and I took a Metro North train down to New York to meet my grandparents the night before for the gala event.   The honorees were staying at a fancy hotel, one those midtown landmarks that is long on history but short on space in the guestrooms.  As I entered the lobby, I walked straight into the sonic boom of Lee Iaccoca (chair of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, honorary medal recipient).  If I remember correctly, I next walked straight into the back of Donald Trump (Scottish-German).  Fortunately, "The Donald" was engaged in animated conversation with Mr. Iacocca and didn't notice my faux pas.

Established in 1986 by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, the Ellis Island Medals of Honor "pay tribute to the ancestry groups that comprise America’s unique cultural mosaic".   Walter Cronkite (Dutch), Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (French-Irish), Joe DiMaggio (Italian) - the Ellis Island medalists were a veritable Who's Who of American immigration.  Of course, this was back in the Reagan era when Americans still celebrated the fact that we are a nation of immigrants.   The 80 inaugural Ellis Island Award winners had been selected from more than 15,000 nominations following the controversy over the Medals of Liberty. Announced in the spring of 1986, the Medals of Liberty had honored 12 naturalized citizens, including  Bob Hope (English), I.M. Pei (Chinese), Irving Berlin (Russian) and Elie Wiesel (Romanian).   Numerous ethnic groups had objected that they were not represented among the winners of the Medals of Liberty, however, and had threatened protests during the "Liberty Weekend" (July 4, 1986) award festivities.  So the Ellis Island Medals were created more or less as a compromise.

That's when they went looking for the lesser-knowns with more obscure national origins.  People  like my grandfather, who had changed his name from Olaf to Orville when he immigrated from Norway in order to "be more American".  My grandfather had charted a successful political career in the Sons of Norway, from Norske Torske Klubben  to lodge president to International Board of Directors.  He got his Ellis Island Medal for his "contributions in preserving  Norwegian- American culture".  Too late for "Liberty Weekend", the Ellis Island awards were to be presented on the actual 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in late October of 1986.  That date fell on a Monday, but I figured it was worth skipping one day of classes to be a small part of history.

Having finally located my grandparents among the honorees at the reception, we headed to the elevator to go up to their room to drop off my bag and change for dinner.  Muhammad Ali (African) was in the elevator with some family members; they held the elevator door for us.  Mr. Ali tapped me on the shoulder and, when I turned, began performing a magic trick with a polka-dot silk scarf.  At the time, I didn't know that he had Parkinson's.  Or maybe I had heard he had Parkinson's, but I didn't really know what that meant.  In any event, I watched in horror as the man - who had been such an icon in the 70s when I was a kid - struggled, with trembling hands, to slowly stuff the scarf into a fake plastic thumb.  That's how I found out how they do that disappearing scarf trick.  No kidding - Muhammad Ali!  

The fake plastic thumb was several shades different from the color of his skin and looked dangerously close to falling off his real thumb, but he was focused like a laser on making that scarf disappear.  I remembered playing chase at recess on the playground at Magnolia Woods Elementary School.  The one who was  "it" would yell,  "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! I am The Greatest - Muhammed Ali!"  As "The Greatest" laboriously performed his magic trick for me, I stared at the single, crystalline drop of drool that hung suspended from the corner of his mouth.   I thought for sure I was going to cry.

My grandfather handled the whole thing much better than I did.  Maybe he was just feeling pretty good after a couple of highballs and a chat with Victor Borge (Danish), but he clapped his hands when the polka-dot scarf finally disappeared and chortled with glee. "Woo-hee-hoo-hoo!!!"  He may have danced a little jig in that elevator, too - that was the kind of thing he did. But I can't be sure because I had gotten really good at ignoring him in public.  At 19, I saw only the weaknesses, the frailties, the embarrassments of my elders in that elevator. Now I see that I missed the bravery, the determination, the encouragement, the shared joy in the accomplishment of a difficult task.

That night, as I lay in my narrow rollaway bed listening to my grandparents snore a few feet away from me, I thought about who I might meet the next day.  I hoped to see  John Denver (German) and Cesar Chavez (Mexican).  Maybe also Gregory Peck (English) and Andy Williams (Welsh).  Bob Hope was going to be there, too, as his wife Dolores (Irish-Italian) was receiving an award.  But the person I most wanted to meet was Ms. Rosa Parks (African).

Rosa Parks had been a larger than life figure for me growing up in the post-Jim Crow South.  The East Baton Rouge Parish school system underwent court-ordered desegregation when I was in high school, so I had some sense of the courage it must have taken her to do what she did.  I thought she was an American hero.

(Image source)

The awards ceremony was to take place on Ellis Island, so in the morning we were all bussed down to Battery Park and the private, chartered ferry.  Most people stayed up on deck for the short ferry ride, cameras at the ready to take photos of the Statue of Liberty.  About halfway through the ride, I went inside to look around.  And there she was!  A tiny, birdlike woman with large plastic 80s glasses sitting alone on a bench by the window.  In my mind's eye, she is wearing a hat, coat and gloves but I can't be sure I haven't borrowed that memory from other images.  She sat prim and erect, her hands folded on her purse in her lap, looking straight ahead. It was exactly how I had always pictured her on the bus. I walked over and asked, "Can I sit here?"  She looked up at me and nodded briefly, so I sat down.  Then my courage failed me.  I couldn't think of what to say next.  As we approached the Statue of Liberty, she turned for a better view out the window so, of course, I did, too.  "The Statue of Liberty. She's smaller than she looks in pictures," remarked Rosa Parks to me. Or maybe just to herself, but I smiled and nodded anyway.  Then we approached Ellis Island and her family came to collect her.  I went back up on deck to look for my grandparents.


"Maybe a famous person like Rosa Parks wouldn't really want to talk to a stranger like you," my son speculates.

 "Maybe," I say.  "But I wasn't thinking about that. I was just sitting there, trying to think of what to say to her and how I was wasting my one chance to talk to her.  It was like I was frozen.  I never did say anything else to her, other than 'Can I sit here'?"

"So what would you have wanted to ask her on the ferry?"  my son wonders.

"Well, I guess I would have asked what it was like to ride that bus."

Twenty-five years later, I realize that Rosa Parks was probably asked some variation of that question nearly every day of her long and beautiful life.  She was probably asked it more times than she could count.  Asked and answered - you can google it.

"I don't recall that I felt anything great about it," Ms. Parks remembered in an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser. "It didn't feel like a victory, actually. There still had to be a great deal to do."

The conversation with my son made me realize that I really hadn't needed to ask her anything about herself.  I didn't waste my one chance to talk to Ms. Rosa Parks.  It was enough to have been able  to sit quietly in her presence for a few minutes.  An African-American and a Norwegian-American, sitting side by side on the ferry and gazing together at the Statue of Liberty.  

(Image source)

View of Statue of Liberty from Ellis Island.

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Beyond stunning...a slice of History, a viewpoint from a sixth grader, a reverie of a hero, and all told so beautifully. This is gorgeous...I'm going to read it again.
Wow! That's quite the compliment, Brazen Princess. Thank you so much!
Bravo! This is so well written; it is simply a beautiful read, with an amazing mise-en-scène. Excellent post. R
What a privilege you had, and isn't it ironic that the question you asked Rosa Parks was: "Can I sit here?" I think that is more meaningful and memorable than having asked something she already was, over and over in her life time. Beautifully told, thank you for sharing such a precious memory.
What a wonderful experience, and what a wonderful question you asked her. Your son should be proud of you.
Thank you, Thoth! I'm not even sure I know what a mise-en-scène is, but it sounds nice. I appreciate your kind words.

Fusun, so true! But I don't think I even caught the irony of the question at the time. It is indeed a precious memory for me. Easier to describe the details in writing than in speaking them out loud, I discovered this week. Thank you and best wishes to you!

Deborah, my son is 12 and 1/2. Sometimes he is proud of me and sometimes he is embarrassed by me. But I think he is mostly proud of me. Thank you for reading and commenting.
What a day that must have been for you. And how nice to be able to share it with your son in such a meaningful way. I hope he enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed the written reenactment. I also enjoyed reading about your grandfather's achievements, as my own grandparents immigrated from Norway in the early 1900's.
Well, that explains why I like you so much, jlsathre. It's not that you were a lawyer or that are a fabulous writer (how many views has 25 Things I Learned From Opening a Bookstore had - 5 million?). It's because you are Norsk! Heck, we were probably even related back in the old country. Seriously though, thank you for work and for your comment.
Spectacular. You remember is such detail. I envy that ability.
Makes me want to ask: "May I sit next to you?".....
I have a pretty good memory, but I have to say that I don't remember a single thing about the awards ceremony on Ellis Island. Thanks for your comment, Ande!
I like this post. I think you did well by sitting quietly next to her. Imagine how tired she must have been of answering the same questions again and again. I really liked the account of Ali. I've always been an Ali fan. I'm glad your grandfather probably gave him the reaction he was looking for on the scarf trick.
This is a beautiful account of an extraordinary evening for a 19-year-old--thank you for sharing it. The story of Muhammad Ali breaks my heart; I'm tearing up.

As for your moment with Rosa Parks, I agree that you didn't waste the opportunity. You sat with her, on transportation (private transport, but still), where both of you existed with quiet dignity. That was what she stood for. You honored her by letting the moment just exist.
Beautiful piece and I think that the observation by FusunA is quite brilliant too. In the years after her future altering ride, you were asking for permission to sit with her, rather than having her removed so that you may sit.
Thank you so very much for sharing....
Thanks for your comments, ManhattanWhiteGirl, Autumn and Desnee! It was an extraordinary experience. I feel so fortunate to have met both Rosa Parks and Muhammad Ali. (Donald Trump, not so much.) Since writing this, I have heard from some of my relatives that pretty much the only thing Grandpa Orville talked about when he got back home was how Muhammad Ali did magic tricks for him.
Thanks to you, also, Liberal Southern Democrat. I like your handle!
In 1973 I had a similar encounter with Daniel Ellsberg outside the Federal Court Building in Los Angeles. We'd both just left courtroom hearings because we were both charged with federal felonies. We chatted while we waited for the light to change, then went our separate ways.

The Feds eventually dropped against me because "subsequent Supreme Court rulings determined that my actions were protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution," and as we all know the judge at Ellsberg's trial declared a mistrial and dismissed all charges because, "The bizarre events have incurably infected the prosecution of this case," and "The totality of the circumstances of the case...offend any sense of justice."

It felt good to be on the same side as Ellsberg. I'm glad we won.

Old Man on the Mountain
Good gravy, OMotM! Have you got some stories to tell! I read this to all three of my kids tonight. Responses: oldest son: "That was pretty good." Middle son: "You should write a book!" Daughter: "Can I have my treat?"
This is just wonderful. I really love how you put in parentheses each person's cultural/racial heritage. That was a nice addition. Lovely writing, I was riveted at the first paragraph!
Thanks, Firechick! The (ethnic background) bit is actually from the descriptions of the Ellis Island medal winners.
Wow, what an amazing experience, being in the midst of all these great people! Your encounter with Rosa Parks was so poignant, especially the realization you had about it after telling your son about it. Thank you for sharing this.
It's funny, I hadn't thought about that ferry ride in years. I asked my son about his homework and the memories just flowed. I feel so fortunate to have had that opportunity to be there with my grandparents. It was a huge deal for my grandfather, who died just over two years later.
Thanks. I know that feeling of wanting to forge a connection while respecting the distance of a person whose incongruities we will to ignore, in effect, a hero. Beautiful text. Thanks.
Katie, you described the feeling exactly! Thank you for reading and commenting.