On the Passing of Rosa Parks
One of the silliest comments I heard today regarding Ms. Parks' demise came from Randi Rhodes:
"[After the Montgomery Bus Boycott] Northerners saw what was going on, and said, 'This isn't good!'"
Then she went on to insist that it was because of Northern intervention that segregation ended.
A pleasing fable, perhaps, but inaccurate.
I observe that it was Martin Luther King, a Southern
minister and black man who took a leadership role in a movement which sought to demonstrate that it was near-universal apathy
to the plight of the African-Americans in the South which allowed Jim Crow to go unchallenged.
(And it was Associate Supreme Court Justice Henry Billings Brown who wrote the majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson
, the case which held that "separate but equal" was not only OK, but natural...
A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races -- a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races, and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color -- has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races...The object of the [Fourteenth A]mendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.
...and this 'enlightened' soul was from Massachusetts. Let it never be said that idiocy adheres to boundaries demarcated on a current electoral map.)
It was also Dr. King who wrote to an amalgamation of clergy (and, I suspect, to fence-straddling liberals) when he penned his missive from the Birmingham jail:
My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant 'Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God- given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six- year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you no forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
Had Southern men and women not taken matters into their own hands (and those people include Rosa Parks, Dr. and Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, James Lawson, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ella Baker, James Meredith, Medgar & Myrlie Evers, and Fred Shuttlesworth), I suspect that progress would have been subject to more and more insistence on waiting for the right time -- whatever that means.
Northerners did not intercede -- they were shamed into action.
I also observe that it was Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Texan, whose political savvy and courage led to the passage of both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, even though he risked alienating his own party. "We just lost the South for a generation," he was said to have remarked after passage of the Civil Rights Act.
But some of the most salient remarks would have come in the preamble to the Voting Rights Act:
"At times history fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There is no Negro problem. There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem."
And lastly, an observation from my own life: My dad took me into a hotel which had been closed for a number of years, but was being reopened for renovation. He walked me around to the public facilities and showed me the FOR WHITES ONLY and FOR COLOREDS ONLY signs, still intact from the days when Plessy
was settled law.
This was in Danville, Illinois.
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Those of you that know me? Well, you already know that The South is my adopted home. I'm not even a damned Yankee -- I'm a goddamned Yankee. (Translated: Not only did I move here, I married a Southern woman.) So I've lived on both sides of the Mason-Dixon. I don't pretend to have every answer, but I have some experiences as a traveled American resident which inform my opinion.
With that disclaimer in place, let me just pass along this bit of analysis: It may feel good to pretend that "the North" (or blue America, whatever) is the center of all that is good and right in American history, but it's just not factual. We all have our shortcomings, we all have our failings, and the perpetuation of myths (which say that one is morally superior to the other, out of some history or some religious practice, e.g.) is tantamount to preserving long, and potentially violent, cultural divisions running the length and breadth of the land.
If you believe there's a blue America, you've been had. If you believe there's a red America, you've been bamboozled.
It's that simple. There are no WHITE seats on the bus and there are no BLACK seats on the bus. There's just the bus, and we're all trying to get where we're going on time.
The only thing that keeps these divisions alive is that people insist on believing that they are real.
And Sister Rosa took a seat in order to make that stand fifty years ago this December.
Godspeed."Memories of our lives, of our works and our deeds will continue in others."
--Rosa Parks, 1913 - 2005