Rosa Parks showed us the power of one

October 30, 2005|By LEONARD PITTS JR.

WASHINGTON — Non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as cooperation with good.

- the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Her feet were not tired. At least, no more so than usual.

She always hated that legend, so let us, in this, the week after her death at age 92, set the record straight. And while we're at it, let's correct another misconception: It's not precisely true that she refused to give up her seat to a white man. The seats next to her and across the aisle were empty, vacated by black people who had already heeded the bus driver's command to get up. So there were places for the white man to sit.

But under the segregation statutes of Montgomery, Ala., no white man was expected to suffer the indignity of sitting next to a black woman or even across from her. So driver J. F. Blake asked again. And Rosa Parks, this soft-spoken 42-year-old department store seamstress just trying to get home from work, gave him her answer again. She told him no.

Her feet were not tired. Her soul was exhausted.

On Dec. 1, it will be 50 years since that drama played out in Court Square in the capital of the Old Confederacy. Fifty years since police took her away. Fifty years since black Montgomery protested by boycotting the buses. Fifty years since community leaders tapped as their leader the boyish-looking new preacher at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

That moment in Court Square was the birthplace of the 13-year epoch called the Civil Rights Movement. You could make a compelling argument that it was also a birthplace of the modern world.

None of which Rosa Parks could have foreseen that December evening half a century ago. All she knew was that she was tired, sick of acquiescing, accommodating, accepting foolish white laws and white people who said she wasn't good enough to occupy a bus seat. Something had gotten into her that wouldn't let her go along anymore, something that turned a lifetime of yes into an electric moment of no.

In the world born from that moment, it is not uncommon for white men to sit next to black women. Or to work for them, be married to them, even get arrested by them. Indeed, any list of the most powerful women in America is likely to have two black women - Oprah Winfrey, Condoleezza Rice - at the top.

Racism that was once brazen enough to demand a black woman's bus seat is covert now, a throw-the-rock-and-hide-your-hand charade, its effects as visible as ever, its workings mostly hidden. But for all that, it is now only the second-most-worrisome threat to African-American life.

African-Americans are the first. Because many of us have internalized the lies of inferiority so deeply as to make racism superfluous. We don't need white people to destroy us; we happily destroy ourselves. Destroy our families by exiling fathers from them, destroy our futures by declaring education something only white people do, destroy our spirits with a culture that celebrates all that is seamy, soulless and material.

This is the threat that troubles most, simply because while racism strangles aspiration, nihilism renders it stillborn.

And in the face of this threat, too many of us do what Rosa Parks got sick of doing: acquiesce, accommodate, accept.

Indeed, let a white man call our children fatherless, ill-educated thugs and we will, justifiably, rip him an orifice God never intended. Let our children say the same thing of themselves and many of us call it music and look the other way.

The lesson of Rosa Parks' life is that you don't have to look the other way. That night on the bus, she wasn't a movement, wasn't an icon. She was just a woman, one woman who'd had enough, who refused to comply any longer with a system that dehumanized her.

Her death reminds us that there is no number more powerful than one, no word more potent than no. And no force more compelling than a soul grown exhausted enough for change.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. He can be reached at lpitts@herald.com.

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