Jewish World Review Oct 31, 2005/ 28 Tishrei,
A history lesson from Rosa Parks
She was eloquent not with words, but with a quiet determination
that avenged a thousand slights. She was the existential heroine who knew
when to say no. She could have stepped out of a Pinter play, a character who
sits for an instant alone at center stage, challenged by menacing men around
The bus driver could have been any other driver, the
representative of a rigid system of cruel segregation, but only Rosa Parks
could have been Rosa Parks, a weary black woman at the end of an exhausting
work day who simply had got her fill of injustice. When two policemen
arrived, flanking the bus driver, to tower over the diminutive lady, she
continued to sit with demure dignity. What was more ordinary than to sit
where you want on a bus?
She was the first person ever charged in Montgomery for violating the city's bus segregation laws, and black leaders saw their chance to test the constitutionality of the law. They couldn't do that unless she agreed. David Halberstam tells in "The Fifties" how her husband, a barber, begged her not to do it.
But she told Edward Nixon, a leader of the black community: "If
you think we can get anywhere with it, I'll go along with it." Ed Nixon knew
that as important as the court case would be, it was also important for the
black community to take responsibility: "Before the whites would take the
blacks seriously, the blacks had to take themselves seriously." He organized
a boycott to demonstrate that they could break through a color line that had
held for a century.
Rosa Parks demonstrated what could be done by taking
responsibility. Shelby Steele, the writer who is a research fellow at the
Hoover Institution, argues that only blacks can take responsibility for
themselves. His argument in the climate of the present day is as bold and as
brave as the example of Rosa Parks.
The civil rights movement was always about acknowledging shameful
behavior, as difficult as that was to do, and whites finally made that
acknowledgment. They took the challenge of Rosa Parks to redress the
injustice and the shame of racism. The turnaround was neither smooth nor
perfect, but it was genuine. Now it remains for the blacks, argues Shelby
Steele, to acknowledge the shame of irresponsibility.
"In fact, true equality an actual parity of wealth and ability
between the races is now largely a black responsibility," he writes in
the Wall Street Journal. "This may not be fair, but historical fairness
of the sort that resolves history's injustices is an idealism that now
plagues black America by making black responsibility seem an injustice."
He follows the admonition of Bill Cosby, who challenged blacks to
do a better job of raising their kids, to see to getting them properly
educated. Only blacks can help other blacks overcome a sense of inferiority,
he and Shelby Steele argue, and black responsibility means discipline with
dignity. The lesson Rosa Parks taught in Montgomery is that shame redeems.
Racism has receded in America because whites accepted shame, took
responsibility for redressing it, and did it. "Today," says Shelby Steele,
"it has to be conceded that whites have made more progress against their
shame of racism than we blacks have against our shame of inferiority."
Five years before Rosa Parks sat her ground, the Rev. Vernon
Johns, pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church that Martin Luther King
Jr. would later lead, was humiliated by a bus driver when he accidentally
dropped his dime fare to the floor. The driver ordered the black man to pick
it up. When he refused he was ordered off the bus. He turned to the other
black passengers and asked them to leave with him. No one moved. Vernon
Johns recalled later: "Even G-d can't free people who act like that."
There's a lesson here.
The black shame of inferiority, the result of oppression, not
genetics, writes Shelby Steele, "cannot be overcome with anything less than
a heroic assumption of responsibility on the part of black Americans." Rosa
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