Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Goodbye to a Freedom Fighter

"Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

"This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North, and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages, and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world; but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others." -- Frederick Douglass, 1857

Yesterday, Rosa Parks died at the age of 92. In an ordinary moment, by deciding to take one small, seemingly insignificant action, she helped to spark a civil rights movement that eventually ended Jim Crow segregation, that got historic civil rights legislation passed, and that went a long way toward ending an era when physical and psychological terrorism against black people was accepted and taken for granted by white Southerners.

One small action: In 1955, going home at the end of a long day of work, she refused to stand up so that a white passenger could take her seat on the bus.

Parks was sitting in the colored section of the bus, and was asked to stand by the driver when there were no more seats in the white section, and a white person was left standing. She refused. When the bus driver told her he would have her arrested if she continued to sit, she replied, "You may do that."

"I had no idea when I refused to give up my seat on that Montgomery bus that my small action would help put an end to the segregation laws in the South," she wrote in her autobiography, Rosa Parks: My Story (1992). "People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that wasn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in."

Parks was not the first to do this, but for whatever reason, this time it triggered the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Segregation and racial oppression made all Americans less free. So Rosa Parks freed me, too, when she helped start a movement that freed me to sit anywhere I want on a bus, in the back or the front, by myself or next to a black person or a white person. No longer will I be ostracized or worse if I have black friends or if I eat a meal with a black person in a public place.

Before Rosa Parks, and countless others like her, there was no freedom for African-Americans. They were not free. They lived, unfree, in a land where freedom had been fought for, mostly overseas, in war after war. None of those wars freed Rosa Parks or white Americans from the tyranny of legal racial apartheid. Rosa Parks, and the movement she inspired, freed Rosa Parks, and all Americans.

Thank you, Rosa Parks. You paid your rent and then some. Rest in peace.

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