The best way to honor Rosa Parks

October 28, 2005|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Ask not what Rosa Parks did for us; ask what we can do in her memory.

Every schoolchild should know about the mother of the modern civil rights movement who died Monday at age 92, even if the vagaries of the nation's public schools mean that far too few children of any race have any idea of who this woman was.

They should know about the seamstress who knitted together a civil rights movement by simply refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a public bus in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955.

They should know how, after Mrs. Parks was convicted and fined $10, plus $4 in court costs, a new civil rights group formed in Montgomery and on Dec. 5 elected the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a young minister from Atlanta, as its president.

They also should know how, four decades later, the woman who survived Ku Klux Klan violence in the South was beaten and robbed by a black man in the North.

Mrs. Parks was hit in the face and robbed of $53 by a man who broke into her bungalow in Detroit in 1994, when she was 81 years old. She had moved to Detroit with her husband, Raymond Parks, who died in 1977, at the urging of relatives who feared for the Parks' lives.

It was a sad epilogue to the civil rights era that the woman who "sat down in order that we all might stand up," as the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson described her, would live to be beaten down again by a thug.

Sad episodes like that illustrate how, for all of the progress that we African-Americans have made since the day Mrs. Parks refused to give up her seat, we still have what some civil rights movement preachers called "a mighty long ways to go."

The best way for us to remember Mrs. Parks is not to dwell on past glories of the movement, but to see how its lessons might best be applied to the problems that limit black opportunities and achievement today, especially for those left behind in areas of high crime, low income and dwindling hope.

Hurricane Katrina reawakened many to the persistent existence of poverty, particularly black urban poverty. But the poor, not all of them black, have always been with us in America's cities. We have just done a better job of hiding them in recent years.

If anything, Mrs. Parks became a crime target because she had not escaped or built a security wall of some sort between herself and young men like her assailant who, for whatever reasons, grow up inadequately socialized.

We have seen overall crime go down since the early 1990s for various reasons, including improved community policing, neighborhood regentrification and soaring imprisonment rates. While crime has gone down, the proportion of young men who grow up fatherless, untutored and prone to commit crimes has continued to grow.

Problems associated with race have changed in America, and so must the remedies. More job and educational opportunities have opened up, but too many of our young people are poorly equipped to take advantage of them.

If the only tool that you have is a hammer, psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, all problems look like nails. If our only tools and role models for activism come from the civil rights era (marches, sit-ins, boycotts, etc.), we will be poorly equipped to handle problems that have more to do with culture, education and economics than with civil rights.

The best way to remember Rosa Parks is not to think 50 years into the past, but to think five years into the future.

Mrs. Parks didn't wait for a black Moses to come and save her. She showed how much of a difference a single, courageous and determined person can make, if she cares enough.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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