Tuesday, October 25, 2005

From the Back Seat to Immortality: Not a Bad Ride

Non-violent direct action practicioner Rosa Parks has died. You can read either the NYT's obituary here or the WaPo's here.

We all know the myth, a tired black woman refused to give up her seat. It has been portrayed in legendary proportions in American textbooks ever since: one thin middle-aged black woman had enough and spontaneously resisted. That's only partly true. Mrs. Parks was active in her local NAACP chapter in Montgomery and was actually rushing home from her seamstress job because as the NYTs article reports, "[s]he had to send out notices of the N.A.A.C.P.'s coming election of officers. And she had to prepare for the workshop that she was running for teenagers that weekend."

When she and three others were told to move from the middle seats to the back of the bus, Parks refused. Via the NYTs:
Recalling the incident for "Eyes on the Prize," a 1987 public television series on the civil rights movement, Mrs. Parks said: "When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up and I said, 'No, I'm not.' And he said, 'Well, if you don't stand up, I'm going to have to call the police and have you arrested.' I said, 'You may do that.' "
I just love her response: elegant, proper, and powerful. This simple response, "You may do that" sparked a 380 day bus boycott where blacks coalesced into a formidable movement demanding civil rights. Blacks car-pooled, walked or took black-owned taxis that only charged the bus fare. As the WaPo article succinctly puts it, her act of resistance:
[L]ed to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that desegregated her city's public transportation. Her arrest also triggered mass demonstrations, made the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famous, and transformed schools, workplaces and housing.
Her death is a reminder of how far we've come as a country and that they're still many boundaries to be overcome before freedom rings out without hypocrisy. And if you don't know what I'm getting at, I mean full and equal rights, no mealymouthed bullshit, for gays and lesbians. The point of the American secular creed of freedom is everyone is guaranteed it, regardless of color or creed or sexual orientation. Those that deny it to others, like the South denied it to blacks, have the shame of history upon them forever.

Rosa Parks, 1913 - 2005