Saturday, January 31, 2009
Thank you Rosa Parks
1/28/09 Chatterbox Betty Kaiser “It’s a great day to be an American — is it not?” Keith Jenkins, pastor of Church Jubilee, posed that rhetorical question to thunderous applause at the opening of the Rosa Parks Plaza dedication in Eugene on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And indeed it was a great day to be an American. Hundreds of kids and dogs, moms and dads, office workers and senior citizens of all colors and creeds gathered in frosty weather under a bright blue sky to unveil a statue in honor of the legendary Rosa Parks.Some of the participants at the renaming of the Lane Transit District’s Eugene Plaza Station could appreciate Parks’ contribution to the Civil Rights movement more than others. At some time or in some way they had been victims of segregation or discrimination. Those of us who grew up on the West Coast rode public transportation, ate in restaurants and attended school with people of all races weren’t quite on the same page. For us, the Rosa Parks incident was a huge wakeup call. Until then, my generation was clueless that the freedoms we enjoyed were way different that the segregation life-style of the Deep South. The events of 1955 educated us. First there was the brutally evil murder of 14-year old Emmett Till in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a girl. He was black and she was white. An all white jury set the perpetrators free. Then came Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama. One day after work, she was weary and refused an order to go to the back of the bus. The law dictated that blacks pay their money, go back outside and come in the bus by the back door. On this particular day, she sat down up front, refused to budge and was arrested. It was 100 days after Till’s murder. Park’s actions galvanized the black community into a boycott of public transportation that spread throughout the country and she became known as the mother of the Civil Rights Movement. From that day forward, the entire nation’s attention was riveted on the Deep South. We could no longer ignore that it was a dangerous time for Americans who were people of color. For most of us, it was a gut-wrenching time to be an American. We watched in horror as fire hoses and police dogs were used to control our fellow citizens. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized and led a nonviolent response to the brutal ways the black population was being treated. Victories were interspersed with violent setbacks. Bus, school and lunch counter desegregation successes were followed by the murder of Medgar Evers. A bomb killing four girls followed King’s triumphant “I have a Dream” speech before 250,000 people. Thurgood Marshall became the first black Supreme Court Justice but the following year King was shot and killed. At the age of 35, King was the youngest man to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Now, 41 years after his death, his life of non-violence is still the gold standard for conduct in the face of injustice and hatred. As a young woman in Los Angeles, I used to walk a mile down the hill from my house to begin a series of transfers that would take me across town to Pepperdine College. First I caught a bus on Crenshaw Blvd. Then I transferred to a streetcar and finally to another bus that dropped me off at 78th and Vermont Ave. Some of the neighborhoods that we drove through were a little rough— even dangerous. In those areas it paid to look straight ahead and keep your mouth shut if you wanted to stay out of trouble. And so I marvel at the courage of Rosa Parks. She was a woman of color, talking back to “the man” as it were. She had a lot to lose by opening her mouth. But on that day in 1955, she didn’t care what the repercussions of her actions would be. At the dedication, area middle and high school students read some of Park’s comments about her courageous decision to sit down in a forbidden front seat and stay there: “He (the bus driver) pointed at and said, ‘that one won’t stand up.’ The policemen came near me and only one spoke to me. He asked me if the driver had asked me to stand up. I said ’yes.’ “He asked why I didn’t stand up. I told him I didn’t think I should have to stand up. So I asked him: ‘Why do you push us around?’ And he told me, ‘I don’t know but the law is the law and you are under arrest.’ And I told him to go on and have me arrested. “Our mistreatment was just not right and I was tired of it. I knew someone had to take the first step and I made up my mind not to move. When I made that decision, I knew that I had the strength of my ancestors with me.” Later, King said of her, “If it had to happen, I’m glad it happened to Mrs. Parks. She is a fine person. No one can doubt her intent.” There was an audible murmur when the bronze statue was unveiled. As the news media closed in with their big cameras, little girls clamored to sit next to the serene Parks. One child looked deeply into her face. Adults lovingly caressed her cheek, murmured and moved on. Many had tears in their eyes. One lady standing near me softly said, “ I’m thrilled to be part of this day.” I think that she spoke for all of us. It is a great time to be an American! Now let’s get to work and keep it that way.
Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart.