We stand on the shoulders of giants, and one of those, the diminutive Rosa Parks, was honored by the American people this week, as her body lay in the Capitol Rotunda and thousands walked to pay their respects. Even as we honor Rosa Parks for her courage and her historic commitment, we must not romanticize her mission.
She was not an innocent seamstress when she refused to give up that seat on the bus in Montgomery, Ala. She was a freedom fighter, an officer of the NAACP at a time when the organization was banned from most parts of the South.
Her mission was to end legal apartheid in this country, to even the playing field, to afford all Americans equal protection under the law. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal was not legal under the Constitution. But states continued to defy the law and to vilify the court as “legislating” change. That’s when segregationists first began demanding “strict constructionists,” by which they meant judges who would defend segregation as the law of the land.
Racial segregation remained entrenched in schools, public transportation, pubic housing, workplaces and our voting process. Rosa Parks and many others worked to challenge that injustice on the ground. Emmett Till was lynched on Aug. 28, 1955. The lynch mob was not prosecuted, and the FBI did not investigate. His body was brought to Chicago, and 100,000 African Americans paid tribute to him. The Black press told his story, led by Jet Magazine. The entire African American community erupted.
I once asked Rosa Parks why she did not go to the back of that bus, given the risks. She said, “I thought about Emmett Till, and I could not go back. My legs and feet were not hurting, that is a stereotype. I paid the same fare as others, and I felt violated. I was not going back.”
Her act, of course, led to the emergence of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the famed Montgomery Bus Boycott. And from Montgomery to Selma, it took years of struggle, more sacrifice, more arrests, more bombings, more murders — but eventually that struggle ended legal segregation and freed the South even as it gave African Americans the right to vote.
When Rosa Parks refused to get up and let a white man have her seat, the white bus driver would not drive off. The white police officer arrested her. They were following the legal, political and religious edicts of their day. Rosa Parks was following a higher law, a moral imperative. If they would not have done their jobs, they would have lost their jobs. If she had not refused to get up, she would have lost her dignity.
There are those who will honor her now in the morning while working to overturn her legacy in the afternoon. President Bush honored her and then nominated Samuel Alito, a states’ rights, strict-constructionist throwback to a bygone age, to the Supreme Court. Alito is a “favorite” of the conservative right wing in the nation that has stood on the opposite side of history from Rosa Parks. His legal foundation is clearly adverse to civil rights, women’s right to self-determination and labor. He has even earned himself the nickname “Scalito,” after Justice Antonin Scalia, the court’s most radical reactionary.
To truly honor Rosa Parks, we urge three simple steps: First, support Rep. Jesse Jackson’s (D-Ill.) bill to place a permanent statue of Rosa Parks in the Great Hall of Congress. Give Rosa a chance to stare down the champions of slavery and segregation that line those halls. Second, Congress must pass the extension of the Voting Rights Act, the key provisions of which will expire in 2007. Finally, the Senate must stand up against those judicial nominees who would turn their backs on equal opportunity for all. We cannot afford to go back to the age when the law worked against equal rights.
Rosa Parks’ legacy is secure, but her mission is unfinished. We have gone from the back of the bus in Montgomery to the back of the rescue in New Orleans. Her struggle for justice now falls upon the living. She is gone to glory. We are left to carry her torch.
And to Rosa Parks, goodbye, sweet angel, take your rest. You prepaid your ticket on a heavenly flight. Now you can sit where you choose. When you get tired of sitting, you can just walk around heaven all day.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson is president and founder of Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. This article originally appeared in the Chicago Sun Times, Nov. 1.