Sharpening our wits on the grindstone of Life: The spark may have gone out, <br>but the candle still burns .comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Sharpening our wits on the grindstone of Life

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The spark may have gone out,
but the candle still burns

Rosa Parks, "the mother of the civil rights movement" passed away this week at the age of 92 in East Detroit, Michigan.

Known predominately for her refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, she led a long and productive life trying to bring equality to her people and other minorities. Because of her, legal segregation is a thing of the past in America, and December 1, 1955 has become a day of celebration.

On that day Rosa, forty-two years of age and tired after a long day as a seamstress, let one full bus pass in order to secure a seat on the next. In those days, there were three sections on the buses in Montgomery, Alabama - the four front rows for whites only, the back rows for blacks only, and the middle rows, which could be used by blacks, but if the white rows were filled and even one white wanted to sit in the middle rows, all of the blacks in the middle rows had to give up their seats.

The Jim Crow rules for the public bus system in Montgomery almost defy belief today. Black customers had to enter the bus at the front door, pay the fare, exit the front door and climb aboard again at the rear door. Even though the majority of bus passengers were black, the front four rows of seats were always reserved for white customers.

Bennett wrote: "It was a common sight in those days to see Black men and women standing in silence and silent fury over the four empty seats reserved for whites." Behind these seats was a middle section that blacks could use only if there was no white demand. However, if so much as one white customer needed a seat in this "no- man's land," all the blacks in that section had to move.

Bennett concluded: "This was, as you can see, pure madness, and it caused no end of trouble and hard feeling." In fact, Parks herself was once thrown off a bus for refusing to endure the charade of entry by the back door. In the year preceding Parks's fateful ride, three other black women had been arrested for refusing to give their seats to white men. Still the system was firmly entrenched, and Parks would often walk to her home to spare herself the humiliation of the bus.


Needless to say that on that fateful day, a white man wanted to sit in the middle section. The driver ordered Rosa and three others to give up their seats. The other three blacks complied, but, tired, Rosa refused to give up her seat. The driver threatened to have her arrested, yet she still refused. The police officers asked the driver if he wanted to swear out a warrant or let her go with a warning, and to the Jim Crow South's detriment, he had her arrested. Incidently, this was the same driver who threw her off the bus for refusing to enter through the back door twelve years earlier.

She was arrested, booked and fined $14. On the advice of her attorney, her husband and her mother, she decided to fight the conviction, and the rest is history. Her cause, spearheaded by a young pastor from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church named Martin Luther King, Jr., led to a boycott of city buses that lasted 382 days, caught the nation's attention and was financially devastating to the bus company. Her case eventually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which essentially put an end to legal segregation.

This was not her first foray into the civil rights movement, nor would it be her last. Dismayed at the hatred and bigotry shown to her kin that returned from serving their country in World War II, she became involved in the "passive resistance" movement, resulting in her earlier bus ejection.

She continued her work for civil rights until recently, when she became ill. She left behind a legacy that includes the end of legal segregation (at least as far as race is concerned), decades of public service and a Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, the nation's highest honor awarded to civilians.

Yet with her passing, we are reminded that there are still many more challenges ahead.

Although race segregation is illegal, there are still many injustices in our society. True equality is not yet here, as evidenced in the official response to Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. And a new segregation based on homophobia is being legislated across the country.

So although Rosa's spark has gone out, we still need the light from her spirit. It's now up to us to keep the fire burning until all injustice has been burned away.

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