Wednesday, October 26, 2005

How a simple 'No!' created history

Commentary by Pat Murphy


Pat Murphy

Ranks of recent generations have been scarce of modest, single-minded heroes and heroines who create history with selfless and unpretentious acts of courage and vision that add luster to the national conscience.

One who came this way with almost indescribable courage, and absolutely changed the course of U.S. history, died on Monday, leaving an uncontestable testament to the power of what one person can do even when dealing with seemingly impossible obstacles.

Rosa Parks, who passed away in Detroit at 92, was the unforgettably shy Alabama seamstress who on Dec. 1, 1955, refused to continue enduring the humiliation of unspeakable Jim Crow laws and traditions that separated blacks and whites throughout U.S. life. When asked on that day to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Ala., city bus, she refused, was arrested and fined $10 and $4 in costs.

Her arrest ignited a 381-day near-bankrupting boycott of the bus system by blacks, the emergence of an obscure local pastor, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to become a Ghandi-like national leader of the non-violent civil rights protest movement, and a Supreme Court ruling overturning Jim Crow laws.

"She sat down that we might stand up," was the Rev. Jesse Jackson's eulogy to Rosa Parks when he heard of her death.

Only those who grew up in the South could imagine the fearsome consequences of her action in a day when the brutal Ku Klux Klan was still holding sway, when black homes and churches were being bombed and burned, when "talking back" to whites was unthinkable, sometimes fatal.

Rosa Parks was the whistleblower of all whistleblowers, fearless and out of patience with injustice that most whites in the south and elsewhere uncomfortably knew existed, but lacked the will and guts to oppose.

Now, in today's culture, the rallying cry is to be "a team player," to "get along to go along." Refusing to abide by those maxims and challenging power, as anti-war mother Cindy Sheehan and others have discovered, invites ridicule and, worse, of being "unpatriotic."

Many who don't conform and who denounce wrong in their midst usually are unceremoniously punished and consigned to Siberian isolation.

Historians will have to look far and long to find any person in modern U.S. history who has so changed the lot of so many millions of people for the better and uplifted the moral values of a single society as Rosa Parks did with her simple, defiant "No!" on a bus in the Deep South.

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