A good obituary can be a history lesson. Rosa Parks, who died last week at 92, for example. Martin Luther King Jr. rose to civil rights celebrity on her protest, but all most schoolchildren know about her is that she refused to give up her seat to a white man. This one act of nonviolent defiance sparked the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and ignited the civil rights revolution that changed the nation's heart -- and history.
She was eloquent not with words, but with a quiet determination that avenged a thousand slights. She was the existential heroine who knew when to say no. She could have stepped out of a Pinter play, a character who sits for an instant alone at center stage, challenged by menacing men around her.
The bus driver could have been any other driver, the representative of a rigid system of cruel segregation, but only Rosa Parks could have been Rosa Parks, a weary black woman at the end of an exhausting work day who simply had got her fill of injustice. When two policemen arrived, flanking the bus driver, to tower over the diminutive lady, she continued to sit with demure dignity. What was more ordinary than to sit where you want on a bus?
She was the first person ever charged in Montgomery for violating the city's bus segregation laws, and black leaders saw their chance to test the constitutionality of the law. They couldn't do that unless she agreed. David Halberstam tells in "The Fifties" how her husband, a barber, begged her not to do it.
"Oh, the white folks will kill you, Rosa," he told her. "Don't do anything to make trouble, Rosa. Don't bring a law suit."
But she told Edward Nixon, a leader of the black community: "If you think we can get anywhere with it, I'll go along with it." Ed Nixon knew that as important as the court case would be, it was also important for the black community to take responsibility: "Before the whites would take the blacks seriously, the blacks had to take themselves seriously." He organized a boycott to demonstrate that they could break through a color line that had held for a century.
Rosa Parks demonstrated what could be done by taking responsibility. Shelby Steele, the writer who is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, argues that only blacks can take responsibility for themselves. His argument in the climate of the present day is as bold and as brave as the example of Rosa Parks.
The civil rights movement was always about acknowledging shameful behavior, as difficult as that was to do, and whites finally made that acknowledgment. They took the challenge of Rosa Parks to redress the injustice and the shame of racism. The turnaround was neither smooth nor perfect, but it was genuine. Now it remains for the blacks, argues Shelby Steele, to acknowledge the shame of irresponsibility.
"In fact, true equality -- an actual parity of wealth and ability between the races -- is now largely a black responsibility," he writes in the Wall Street Journal. "This may not be fair, but historical fairness -- of the sort that resolves history's injustices -- is an idealism that now plagues black America by making black responsibility seem an injustice."
He follows the admonition of Bill Cosby, who challenged blacks to do a better job of raising their kids, to see to getting them properly educated. Only blacks can help other blacks overcome a sense of inferiority, he and Shelby Steele argue, and black responsibility means discipline with dignity. The lesson Rosa Parks taught in Montgomery is that shame redeems.
Racism has receded in America because whites accepted shame, took responsibility for redressing it, and did it. "Today," says Shelby Steele, "it has to be conceded that whites have made more progress against their shame of racism than we blacks have against our shame of inferiority."
Five years before Rosa Parks sat her ground, the Rev. Vernon Johns, pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church that Martin Luther King Jr. would later lead, was humiliated by a bus driver when he accidentally dropped his dime fare to the floor. The driver ordered the black man to pick it up. When he refused he was ordered off the bus. He turned to the other black passengers and asked them to leave with him. No one moved. Vernon Johns recalled later: "Even God can't free people who act like that." There's a lesson here.
The black shame of inferiority, the result of oppression, not genetics, writes Shelby Steele, "cannot be overcome with anything less than a heroic assumption of responsibility on the part of black Americans." Rosa Parks lives.