Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Rosa Parks, R.I.P

Rosa Parks has died at the age of 92. Her refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 spurred the involvement of Martin Luther King Jr. in non-violent resistance to (white) injustice; more immediately, her action prompted a boycott of Montgomery buses which forced the company to adapt its policies and allow its black patrons to sit on a bus without fear of being forced to stand or sit somewhere else. Rosa Parks is an important icon for people struggling against injustice of any sort. However, Rosa Parks did not think of herself as an icon. She was, as she put it, "tired of giving in." Many other brave black folks had refused to accept discrimination in public transportation over time.

The prominent anti-lynching crusader and journalist, Ida B. Wells, had sued and defeated an Ohio railroad company in 1884 for (physically) ejecting her from a railroad car, and from a seat, she had paid for. She sued the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company and won in her local Memphis courts. However, the Supreme Court of Tennessee overturned the lower court's decision. Nevertheless, Wells' courage in the face of adversity was typical of her life, one in which she lobbied for anti-lynching legislation and, after the death of three friends at the People's Bakery in Memphis in 1892, dedicated herself to stating the real reason for the lynching of black men-white men felt nervous about white womanhood being sullied. This was all the more brave since she was a black woman. Her book, On Lynchings: Southern Horrors, A Red Record Mob Rule in New Orleans reads as one of the most direct, clear-headed responses to immoral authority in recent history, if not of all time.

Several men in Louisville, KY showed similar courage in 1870 when they rode the trolley which was forbidden for blacks there. They were arrested and in spite of an attorney who attempted to question the restriction of their transportation rights as citizens, they were fined $5 for wrongly using city services. The riders then filed suit in federal court in Louisville because of the denial of access to city services. This appeal was accepted and Fox (the defendant) was awarded $15 on May 11, 1871. This prompted more boycotts of Louisville's public transportation by black residents...and so it has gone. In the work of historian Robin DG Kelley, particularly in Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, but in other work, Kelley outlines dissent by black Alabamans during the Great Depression, at great cost to them. However, their principled political stance toward an oppressive state is only ons small example of opposition to injustice throughout history. In the work of Sterling Stuckey, slaves in the United States engaged in the ring shout, an adaptation of an African practice in which people would assemble in circles, and to only the most limited vocal expression, dance. This expression of personal, artistic identity was a means of strengthening slaves, of fortifying them to survive their torturous, gruelling existence. There are many ways to fight oppression, but, as Rosa Parks exemplified, it's important to do something. The degree to which that lesson has been absorbed by people today is unclear, but it's the only way forward. R.I.P. Rosa


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