Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Now and Then

by Katherine Scardino

As I enjoyed a holiday this past Monday in celebration of Martin Luther King and his accomplishments in promoting racial equality, I thought back over the years to the many changes that have occurred - just in my lifetime. I wrote about this recently during the MLK Memorial dedication ceremonies, so I will not repeat myself.

My question today is, if we were living back in the 1950's and 1960's (and of course a couple of hundred years prior to that..), would you be sympathetic to people who were being discriminated against solely because of the color of their skin, or would you just be “one of the crowd” and not do anything. In other words, do you think you would be an activist against racial discrimination? Or, would you be the kind of person who sticks their head in the sand and pretends the problems do not exist - similar to what the United States and other countries did during the time Hitler was exterminating millions of Jews in Germany. 

Would I have the nerve of Rosa Parks who, as a young black woman, refused to surrender her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a white person, which subsequently spurred a citywide boycott and helped launch nationwide efforts to end segregation of public facilities? Would I risk being arrested and prosecuted for my beliefs?

Today, we have many people around the world who are making their voices heard about many different subjects. People speak out about endangered species, Wall Street, treatment of animals, democracy - or the lack of it, along with a million other subjects. But, I wonder who these people are. I do not personally know anyone who is a true activist - not in the sense of Ms. Parks. But, I do know they are there and we should all be grateful for each and every one of them.

All of my life I have admired Rosa Parks. Let me tell you a little about her. She was born on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama. Her grandparents were former slaves and also strong advocates for racial equality. Young Rosa and her mother lived with her grandparents in Pine Level, Alabama. It has been said that Rosa’s grandfather stood in front of their house with a shotgun while Ku Klux Klan members marched down the street. The city of Pine Level had a new school building and bus transportation for white students while African American children walked to the one room schoolhouse, which was often lacking desks and adequate school supplies.

In 1932, Rosa married a barber named Raymond Parks who was an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She became actively involved in civil rights issues by joining the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in 1943, serving as the secretary to the president.

During the time she was living in Montgomery, the city enforced a city code that required all public transportation to be segregated and that bus drivers had the power of a police officer while in actual charge of any bus. Drivers were required to provide separate but equal accommodations for white and black passengers by assigning seats. This was done by a line that was drawn in the middle of the bus separating white passengers in the front of the bus and black passengers in the back of the bus. A black passenger got on the bus at the front, paid their fare, and then get off the bus and re-board at the back door. When the seats in the front were filled up and more white passengers got on, the bus driver would move back the sign separating black and white passengers and, if necessary, ask black passengers to give up their seat.

On December 1, 1955, after a long day at work at the Montgomery Fair department store, Rosa boarded her bus for home. She sat down in a seat in one of the first rows designated for black passengers. Though the city’s bus ordinance did give drivers the authority to assign seats, it did not specifically give them the authority to demand a passenger to give up a seat to anyone regardless of color. However, the local bus drivers had started the custom of forcing black passengers to give up their seats to white passengers when no other seats were available.

The bus driver walked back to the row where Rosa was sitting, and asked four black passengers to give up their seats. Three others complied. Rosa refused and remained seated. The story goes that the driver said to her “Why don’t you stand up?” Rosa replied, “I don’t think I should have to stand up.” The driver called the police and Rosa was arrested. She later stated that she did not refuse to stand up because she was physically tired, but because she was tired of giving in.

Rosa was arrested and later tried for violating a Montgomery city code. She was fined ten dollars plus a four dollar court fee. The boycott continued with an estimated 40,000 African Americans refusing to ride buses. Some commuters walked, even as far as 20 miles to get to work. Dozens of the public buses sat idle for months, severely crippling the transit company. But, the boycott was faced with strong resistance and some violence by segregationists. The homes of the local NAACP president and a new comer preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. were attacked.

On December 5, 1955, the black community leaders met at the Mt. Zion Church to discuss strategies and during this meeting, determined that they needed a new organization and a strong leader. They formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and elected Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church as their leader.

The rest is history. Rosa Parks started a new era of activism resulting in new laws, a new world. It is basically, inherently wrong to discriminate or prosecute one person because of the color of his skin. It is wrong for you or I to stay silent when our beliefs are violated, regardless of the subject. I hope that I would have one ounce of the courage of Rosa Parks and speak out, loudly, when any personal, constitutional right is violated. Will you join me?

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