Glimmers of light behind the dark curtain of racism

November 07, 2005|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- When Condoleezza Rice took the field Oct. 22 at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, the crowd greeted her as if she were the school's most recent Heisman Trophy winner - conquering hero and pride of Alabama. She was not the first black person to step onto the University of Alabama's football field to so enthusiastic a greeting, but she is the first who has never worn a helmet and shoulder pads.

Had I not witnessed the moment myself - in all its magic and wonder - I could not have imagined it. An Alabama native, I am old enough to remember that even star black athletes were not always treated kindly on the South's storied playing fields.

Indeed, the secretary of state's appearance at the Alabama-Tennessee game was just one in a series of recent events that have thrown me slightly off stride, as if the Earth has tilted ever so slightly and my social compass has begun to spin. Just over a week after Ms. Rice's triumphant stride onto the field for the ceremonial coin toss, civil rights heroine Rosa Parks lay in a place of honor in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington.

The news media played it as if it were a routine turn of history - a natural outgrowth of a civil rights movement that overturned the cultural status quo - but there is nothing "natural" about Mrs. Parks' elevation to civic sainthood. Nor is there anything routine about Ms. Rice's ascension to secretary of state a mere 42 years after four little girls were blown up at church, in Ms. Rice's hometown of Birmingham, for the sin of skin color.

This is a staggering development, akin to a dimensional shift - like stepping into one of those parallel universes so popular in science fiction. Perhaps you have to step back in time a bit to catch up to the marvel of the present.

I remember whites-only waiting rooms, water fountains and toilets. I remember when my parents, both of whom had graduate degrees, earned less than their white counterparts. And I remember when black passengers were routinely ordered to the back of the bus.

Taking a commercial bus line through Hayneville, Ala., notorious for its bigotry back then, my mother and her 4-year-old (me) were ordered to move to the rear to make room for white passengers. I refused - not because of the injustice of the demand, to which I was oblivious, but because I liked the seat. My mother, all the more terrified because of her obstinate, protesting preschooler, dragged me to the back.

When Mrs. Parks refused to yield her seat that December day in 1955, she was regarded by local authorities as an outlaw. She was arrested. And there was no national outpouring of sympathy. President Dwight Eisenhower refused to make a strong public stand against segregation, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had already begun a campaign to smear civil rights activists as godless communists.

Yet, last week, countless Washington notables came to bid Mrs. Parks farewell. It was hard not to notice the layers of irony: Among those dignitaries was Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr., hailed by hard-core conservatives as a jurist contemptuous of the sort of judicial "activism" that gave Mrs. Parks full citizenship. Without federal judges who were courageous and farsighted, after all, Ms. Rice and I might still be sitting in the back of the bus.

I am not naive enough to believe that racism is dead, that the nation is colorblind or that Ms. Rice could be elected president, as some have claimed. Just the other day, I received a reader e-mail stunning in its crude bigotry. It ended with the male correspondent's assertion of a black woman's proper place: "I have floors that need to be mopped," he said, before descending into obscenity.

Still, there are those moments when, if you stand at just the right place and the light falls at just the right angle, you can see the faintest outlines of the beloved community of which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke. This is such a moment.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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