Last week's civil rights history lesson was delivered in solemn, poignant bursts, largely scrubbed of the dehumanizing details of Jim Crow's rule. The tributes to Rosa Parks, for the most part, emphasized her dignity, her quiet strength, the transforming power of a courageous act on a public bus.
The Rev. Lennox Yearwood understood all of that as he stood outside the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, amid the celebrants at a Parks memorial service. He was wondering how best to link a movement's past to the present. At age 35, he is president of the D.C.-based Hip Hop Caucus, a group formed to mobilize young people into social and political action. But as Yearwood knows all too well, the crushing brutality that existed before and after the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and the battles against daily discrimination have been lost on much of the hip-hop generation.
"Young people don't know what it feels like to be in those kinds of struggles," Yearwood says. "I mean, they've got their own struggles, now -- lack of education, lack of opportunity, lack of respect. But in the civil rights movement, people were willing to die, get bitten by dogs, hosed. That was the difference. Our challenge is: How should the civil rights movement look in the 21st century?"
Here is what the movement was confronting in the mid-20th century: Maceo Snipes shot to death in Georgia for voting. John Jones blowtorched in Louisiana for refusing to surrender a war souvenir. Hosea Williams beaten until he was unconscious for attempting to get a cup of water at a bus station fountain. All are episodes documented in the companion book to Richard Wormser's PBS television series, "The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow."
But how many young people have seen Wormser's work or any work like it?
Williams would go on to become a key figure in the civil rights movement, leading the 1965 "Bloody Sunday" march in Selma, Ala., which accelerated passage of the Voting Rights Act. But upon returning from defending his country in World War II, Williams, with a Purple Heart and a permanent limp, discovered that he was still less than human to some of his countrymen.
Now, I had all these medals on. That's one thing you'd thought they might would have respected. And they beat me until they thought I was dead, and called a black undertaker who picked me up and found I had a pulse and still breathing, and carried me there to a hospital in Thomasville, Ga. And I laid there crying eight weeks wishing Adolf Hitler had won the war.
Yearwood hadn't been born when Williams returned from the war. But he's now trying to follow the late leader's model of activism. Tomorrow, Yearwood plans to help lead a march across the 3,000-foot steel bridge that connects New Orleans to the blue-collar city of Gretna, La. Three days after Hurricane Katrina hit, Gretna made national news when its gun-wielding police officers closed the bridge to fleeing evacuees. Gretna authorities said its small town of 3.5 square miles, population 17,500, had already helped with the evacuation effort and was too overwhelmed to accommodate thousands crossing the Mississippi River connector in search of refuge.
Because New Orleans's population is two-thirds black and Gretna's is two-thirds white, because New Orleans's black mayor was dismayed by the decision and Gretna's white mayor defended it, the episode has had a lingering racial impact. As New Orleans officials see it, Gretna chose to protect its property rather than save lives -- the lives of poor African Americans.
But for many young African Americans, their struggles are closer to home -- linked to how they are viewed, judged and categorized, if they are noticed at all. Yearwood thinks about this question of invisibility whenever he goes to Gold's Gym in Southwest dressed in black, wearing his white ministerial collar. He is always greeted warmly, he says: "Hey, father. Hey, reverend." And then after his workout, he sometimes leaves wearing a hoodie and sweats and Timberlands, and watches some of the same people who greeted him earlier tense up or clutch their purses or just not really see him. He wonders sometimes: "How do you go from being a man who fears God to a man who is feared?
"The thing about it, I know how to handle it," he says. "But many of my young brothers don't." They turn to rage over such episodes, feeling devalued, unable to harness their emotions. This is part of what must be taught, Yearwood says -- how to assert control and maintain it.
What many younger blacks don't realize is that they are not alone in what they feel. Even in the halls of power, you can be invisible. That's how Lorraine Miller felt when President Bush paid a visit to the Capitol Rotunda, where Rosa Parks was lying in honor. Miller, president of the Washington branch of the NAACP and a senior adviser to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), served as one of the organizers for the Parks tributes. But Bush mistook her for Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), Miller says, and started a conversation with her as though she were the congresswoman. "I'm Lorraine Miller from Fort Worth, Texas," she corrected him. Bush apologized, but it left Miller feeling that even through the eyes of the president of the United States, "we all look alike."
Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.) has his own Capitol Hill story. He recalls helping himself to a bowl of chili during lunch in the House members' dining room last year. As he was returning to his seat, a freshman congressman took the chili and thanked Wynn, who was momentarily speechless. "It was so sad, but it was funny," Wynn recalls. "To realize that although I was a 12-year member of Congress, if you take me out of that context I was just another African American in a subservient role to him."
The offending white congressman quickly apologized after he realized Wynn was a colleague and not restaurant staff. Wynn cautions not to make too much of these incidents. "Yes, we do endure indignities and insults," he says, "but none of them compare to what Rosa Parks went through. So while we have a right to complain, we don't have a right to whine."
That is the lesson for the younger generation, as Wynn sees it. Maintain perspective. But everyone defines the struggle differently. And sometimes all you have are your own experiences.
Carl "C.J." McCroy, 22, takes a bus each day from his Southeast home to the Anacostia Metro Station, where he catches a Green Line train to Prince George's Plaza, where he works as a clerk at Target and wears a red shirt. During 15-minute breaks, he leaves the store, comes outside, sits on a metal bench and takes in the fresh air. "The struggle today is that people can't get any jobs," says McCroy. "They talk about kids not learning? A lot of my friends have been killed; a lot of my buddies sell drugs. A handful of us made it with real jobs."
"The struggle in my life is staying focused and staying positive and not getting caught up in negative situations," says Tracey Jackson, 23, a full-time nursing student who also works at a temporary employment agency in Largo. She worries most about what blacks are doing to each other.
"We are going backwards as a people," Jackson says. "Some folks just think that we woke up one morning and we were here and everything was in place. They don't understand the struggle to get here."
News about Parks was on the television one evening last week in the packed waiting room of Kaiser Permanente's pharmacy in Largo. Kayade Ereme, a 14-year-old DeMatha High student, was watching while talking on his cell phone. He was waiting for his mother, a Kaiser pharmacist, to get off work. He had nearly gotten into a fight the day before, and this was still on his mind. "Today, people are fighting each other for stupid stuff," he says. "Blacks are fighting blacks."
He was dressed in his Catholic school uniform, but also was sporting a red silk skull cap, a black velvet racing jacket and 50 Cent's sneakers, the G-Units. Asked about Parks, Kayade says, "I heard that she sat down on the bus. That is all that I know. They don't tell you too much about this stuff at school. They talk mostly about military tactics and how wars were won."
Which is to say the Rev. Lennox Yearwood and his Hip Hop Caucus have a lot of work left to do.
"Everybody sees their own reality," he says.
Harking back to the days of boycotts and sit-ins, Yearwood says there's something to be learned from the civil rights elders. "They didn't have Internet. They didn't have e-mail blasts. Martin didn't have a BlackBerry. But they still got thousands of people out to a place. The dots have to be connected."