Rosa Parks, where have you gone?

Posted: Oct 30, 2005 12:05 AM
Like Paul Simon's lament for Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to Rosa Parks, an authentic American hero who passed away this week. She was a model of virtue, a legend, one of TIME magazine's 100 Most Important People of the Century, a hero the likes of which we'll not see again soon.

Her path to glory had humble beginnings. She was an ordinary woman - a seamstress, in fact - who did the extraordinary. Born Rosa Lee McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama, she grew up on a farm with her Methodist grandparents. Today we remember her as the very image of serene dignity: Rosa Parks, the unassuming seamstress who galvanized the nation to the injustice of race-based discrimination when after a long day's work she refused to give up her seat to a white man.

But Rosa Parks was not the first black person in Montgomery to refuse to give up her seat; she was the first black person whose rights had been violated that the nascent civil rights movement was willing to stand behind. Many Americans may not realize that some nine months earlier a young woman named Claudette Colvin had also been arrested in Montgomery for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. Miss Colvin was charged with misconduct, resisting arrest and violating city and state segregation laws. The civil rights community initially thought she might be just the person to stand behind. But when reports came out that she was a teenager, pregnant by a married man and that during her arrest had allegedly uttered a stream of obscenities, leaders in the civil rights community decided that hers was not the case to rally around.

Subsequently when Mrs. Parks was arrested, the response was immediate and unequivocal. Fifty leaders of the civil rights community in Montgomery, led by a then relatively unknown minister Dr. Martin Luther King, declared that unlike Claudette Colvin, unwed and pregnant, "Mrs. Parks, on the other hand, was regarded as one of the finest citizens of Montgomery, not one of the finest Negro citizens but one of the finest citizens of Montgomery." A boycott was initiated which lasted for 382 days, until the local ordinance segregating African-Americans and whites on public buses was lifted. The success in Montgomery transformed Dr. King into a nationally known figure and triggered other bus boycotts, ultimately igniting a nationwide assault on the injustice of segregation.

Sadly this commonsense notion has completely vanished from any discussions of the civil rights movement. Worse than perhaps the troubling trend towards an ever expanding definition of civil rights grievance and a glaring failure to acknowledge significant progress and achievements has been the civil rights community's almost wholesale rejection of the notion of using the finest individuals or causes as occasions to promote their goals.

Instead the American people have in recent times been presented with far more morally ambiguous causes and people to support - Rodney King, crack cocaine prosecutions, Louis Farrakhan, OJ Simpson, odious conspiracies involving an effort to intentionally flood New Orleans, and the like causes and individuals which not only fail to unify America around the principle of equality but so taint the concept they almost give even the most fair-minded just cause to reconsider the merits of the principle itself.

Redefining civil rights to include a license for criminality, unjustified racial animus and even misogynistic gangsta lyrics has taken the noble cause of civil rights equality down an unfortunate path that must be reversed.

It is with only a hint of irony that history notes that Rosa Parks, who eventually fled Alabama for her safety and relocated to Michigan, was attacked in her home at age eighty one by a black youth. This thug would later admit to recognizing her at the time, asking, "Aren't you Rosa Parks?" She handed him $3 when he demanded money and an additional $50 when he demanded more. Before fleeing, he would strike her in the face.

We would be well served to remember Rosa Parks' legacy. Decent and morally upright, she played a key role in a long, primarily nonviolent struggle to bring full civil rights and equality under the law to blacks in America.

That battle has largely been won. There is still more work to do. But as we wage the peace, it's vital that it be done in a morally clear and unambiguous manner. To rephrase Paul Simon, "What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Rosa Parks has left and gone away?" Let's hope not.