I hadn't planned to write about the death, or the life, of Rosa Parks. I know she was an amazing hero, but I didn't think I had anything else to say that everybody and his brother aren't already falling over each other to say.
But after catching a bit of her memorial service tonight on C-SPAN, I realized that, in her death, Ms. Parks is like Martin Luther King Jr. to so many—she's superhuman. In the blink of an eye, the legend goes, she changed the world by suddenly getting tired of being mistreated, by saying to a bus driver in Montgomery, Ala., who had just threatened her with arrest if she didn't get up: "You can do that."
Except Ms. Parks didn't change the world in an impulsive wink of an eye, and she wasn't superhuman. She was very real, a seamstress who had gotten involved with a male-dominated and often sexist Civil Rights Movement, a woman who argued with her husband over the time her activism was taking up. She had spent two weeks training at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn., where she studied Mohatma Gandhi's non-violent principles to protest injustice. There she underwent the same training as so many others—including Dr. King, Septima Clark and Stokely Carmichael, who would later coin the phrase "black power."
That is, Parks wasn't a little, "unassuming" (as CNN called her) old lady who suddenly got fed up. She was a determined young woman who was, in the latter words of another great human, Fannie Lou Hamer, "sick and tired of being sick and tired." She took a step at a time to learn how to fight back, and then on Dec. 1, 1955, she purposefully used her training in an act of civil disobedience that would help change the South, and the United States.
It is vital to know that Ms. Parks was a human who worked methodically to overcome obstacles. She was flesh and blood, just like Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Just like Dr. King. Just like Malcolm X. Just like Medgar Evers. Just like Bob Moses. Just like Ed King. Just like you. Just like me.
And like you and me, Ms. Parks lived in a difficult time. Her famous moment took place a year and a half after the fateful Brown v. Board of Education decision in May 1954 that would set off a second civil war—this one white vs. black—in the South because blacks wanted equal access to schools, accommodations, resources, opportunities, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It was Jim Crow times in the South, meaning that segregation was required and codified by law and enforced with tax dollars (including those of blacks).
The White Citizens Council—the "uptown Klan"—had formed to ruin blacks and whites who questioned the racist "way of life." The Klan was about to re-emerge to physically terrorize blacks and whites ("communists" they were called) who wanted equality of the races. It was a time of the Red Scare and government crackdowns on dissent. The Vietnam War was just ahead. Racist Southern Democrats ("Dixiecrats") would soon split off to form a new Republican Party of the future, founded in and bolstered by racism, as far from the Party of Lincoln as a party could get.
It would have been easy to shrug then and believe that things would never change and just go along with the minutia of everyday life. That's how life goes.
But Rosa Parks did not believe that it took a superhuman to change attitudes and hearts and laws. She was a wonderful cog in a wheel, one of a new generation of Americans of all races who believed, simply, in their own power, alongside that of others, to effect change and break down a system of government oppression and apartheid.
We think we have problems now?
The truth is, we do. They're not the exact same ones, but they're intimidating, nevertheless, and many are variations on those themes. We are caught in the talons of a corrupt presidential administration that lied to us mightily to get us into war and then did very un-American, arguably treasonous, things to ensure that we didn't find out. We're nonsensically renaming fried potatoes even as we are losing more freedoms at home every day. We are waging a war on the poor instead of a war against poverty. We are justifying torture of other country's soldiers, with no regard to what it's going to mean for our own some day.
We are rolling back safeguards that people like Rosa Parks helped us get in the first place—laws that ensure rights for every individual, not just limited "freedoms" as defined by a majority. We are facing an overhauled Supreme Court that can help ensure that the America-the-free we value will be no longer. And now whites and blacks are coming together in a new round of prejudice and hate—against gays and lesbians, against Muslims, against a new "them."
These are not pretty facts, and they are intimidating. Many people do not—or cannot, they believe—face the seriousness of all this. We need heroes, they say. No, we need superheroes, leaders!, who are up to the task. We need a Dr. King or a Rosa Parks to lead us from the temptation to bargain away our freedoms and deliver us from the evil who would ask us to do such a thing.
But the truth is, we don't need a Martin King or a Rosa Parks, bless their beautiful, departed souls. We simply need ourselves. We must tap into our own strength as citizens of a great nation that was built (albeit in bits and pieces and gradually) on the idea that we are each created equal and endowed by our creator, whomever each of us chooses to believe that is.
What we must do is simple, yet elusive in its very simplicity. Each of us must find our own strengths and passionately defend the America that has grown and become stronger because many of us disagree, and worship differently, and are of a different culture or color. We each must decide to do our part as citizens to guard not only our personal freedoms, but those of the person we disagree with the most. Our devotion to the rights of those who believe differently is what makes America great and what enables tiny women to become superheroes in the minds of many.
Be sure that you don't de-humanize our heroes in your quest to honor them. It is their very humanity, their smallness, that enabled them to do great, big things. They are no different than you and me. They each got up one day and looked at themselves in the mirror and said one simple thing to their reflection: You can do that.