What Rosa Parks Meant

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Although we are approaching the end of the news cycle that focused on Rosa Park’s passing, it seems a shame that such people come and go in our lives as rapidly as we are able to manipulate our television remotes. Thankfully, their legacies are anything but transient.

As a kid growing up during the tumult of the 1960s and 1970s, yet safely ensconced in the rapidly sprawling Orange County, my understanding of racism, civil rights, and liberty was—to say the least—lacking. For me, a middle-class white boy growing up in Southern California, living among the orange groves in a cookie-cutter housing development and hanging out with friends whose white-collar dads all seemed to be a part of the soaring (pardon the pun) aerospace industry, what was happening to “colored people” down in Alabama, Mississippi, and other foreign-sounding places sounded . . . unreal. In our peaceful, homogeneous neighborhood, we didn’t have protests or race riots, and we exuded a general self-satisfaction when it came to getting along with our fellow Americans.

Thus I hadn’t heard much about Mrs. Parks until high school; even then, I didn’t begin to grasp what she had done until college and even later. I’d never lived in the world she and her people faced each and every day. Although I later came to imagine that I knew what the battles she faced were about, I was wrong.

My first job out of college found me working near what became the flash point of the “Rodney King riots.” Deep in the heart of the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles, not far from South Central, I was one of the few white faces in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. I remember the comments, the stares and even a few epithets directed at me as a white person. Whatever effects they had on me, though, quickly dissolved when I’d drive back each evening to my decidedly more upscale (and whiter) Westside neighborhood. I occasionally thought, “So that’s how it is being the minority.” But it was a small taste and it wasn’t widespread—I encountered many more African Americans who were outgoing, friendly and, sadly, deferential. Furthermore, no institutional, obligatory racism presented hurdles for me. What I encountered was more a taste of the racism others endured when assumptions were made about them on the basis of the color of their skin.

So I can’t pretend I know what it’s like and I can’t pretend I knew what was going on when Mrs. Parks, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and others were fighting for their inalienable rights. I can say, however, that their lives and the lessons they taught resonate with me. Their methods and motives were sometimes viewed as radical, but what other choices did they have? Close to a century after the Emancipation Proclamation and 13th Amendment, they still weren’t truly free.

When listening to Mrs. Parks’s memorial service, I thought about something, perhaps unintended, that she taught us: that “the power of one” is remarkable. In a world where mass movements—political, social, cultural, and so on—often steamroll the individual, the greatest movements are sparked by one person. And strangely enough, those who emerge as leaders are often the very last people you would suspect. They don’t tend to be generals, captains of industry, or celebrities; often, the weakest emerge as the most powerful.

Mrs. Parks’s example is what I find so hopeful—or worth hoping for—in America. In this country, where slavery and racism are our original sin, there are still opportunities, even for the most downtrodden among us, to lead us into better times and better ways. Whether it’s in the wake of a storm such as Katrina or a hotly contested election, we often hear that it is America’s history and destiny to build and feed on oppression. This is inaccurate. Some people may choose this trough of a system gone bad. Thankfully, others choose different, more significant and lasting routes that allow them not only to rise above but also to pull everyone else up along with them.

It is because our country is able to acknowledge an individual’s cry for justice above the cruel din that we are able to recognize our stains and sorrows and, eventually, right wrongs. The actions of Rosa Parks enabled our country to fully realize its promise . . . and keep it.