She Sat Down And Taught Us To Stand Up
As a boy growing up in Shreveport, La., during the 1950s and '60s, I used to ride at the back of racially segregated buses. Then, one day, I stopped riding buses altogether. I recall sitting at a segregated lunch counter at a department store one afternoon -- and never going back. I used to go to the Louisiana State Fair on Colored Day, then stopped. I would go into an alley downtown and walk up a fire escape to the "colored only" entrance of a movie theater and sit with other blacks in the balcony. Then I stopped going to movies.
Never drank from those "colored only" water fountains, though. Too nasty-looking even for a thirsty child.
My parents just stopped allowing or facilitating those activities. Some years later, I was able to discern their reasoning by connecting a few dots: from the lynching of Emmett Till in Money, Miss., in August 1955, to Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., in December 1955, to Martin Luther King Jr. and a civil rights uprising that eventually would blow my "colored world" away forever.
When I last saw Rosa Parks, during a celebration of her life at Howard University in 1998, we recalled those Jim Crow days and how far -- or not -- the country had come since then. "Racism is still with us," she told me. "But it is up to us to prepare our children for what they have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome."
Parks's death Monday, at age 92, reminded me of the challenge she posed that day and how we might meet it in a society that, in some ways, is just as segregated now as it was in 1955.
The bittersweet truth of my childhood is that while Parks was two states away making civil rights history, I was enjoying my rides at the back of the bus -- especially with my friends, all of them black. We never liked to have people sitting behind us -- on a bus or in a classroom -- lest we get ambushed like they did in those Westerns, which we enjoyed watching from our "colored only" balcony. Better to have us throwing popcorn down on the heads of white kids than vice versa was how we saw it. As for there being no white people at the fairgrounds -- or in our schools, for that matter -- so what?
It would take a while for me to grasp the theory and practice of racism in America -- which amounts to a national mental illness, known to cause delusions of racial superiority in some whites and self-hatred in some blacks.
Rosa Parks struck a blow against both pathologies when she refused to give up her seat. Her actions, it should be noted, had nothing to do with wanting to sit with white people, as if being near them would make for a smoother ride, any more than sitting next to a white student in class would make a black student smarter, as some arguments for integration seemed to imply.
Parks was simply exercising her rights as an American, which had been denied her because she was black. It was a matter of being treated with dignity and respect; integration -- or, more accurately, desegregation -- was just a byproduct, never the primary goal.
The question now is whether African Americans who find themselves re-segregated -- especially those in underserved black neighborhoods and black schools -- can begin to treat one another with dignity and develop the self-respect needed to meet the challenge posed by Parks.
In 1950, Life magazine ranked my high school, Booker T. Washington, among the top 15 in the country. When I graduated in 1968, the school was still producing high-achievers, all black and proud. The point being that predominantly black schools need not be factories for failure.
During the celebration at Howard, Parks was asked by a child how she had managed to carry herself with such dignity. "Have faith," she replied, "and let love, not fear, be your guide."
Not only did Parks give us a profile in courage, but she also showed us where to find the strength we must have if we shall overcome.