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Text Graphic: 'American Dreams - Honor Rosa Parks'

by H. Scott Prosterman

Special to the G21

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A waving American Flag. Berkeley, CA, USA - Rosa Parks was a pioneer and crusader. The impact of her single act of bravery and defiance led to the transformation of this country. Righteous indignation was common in those days, especially among black people who had tasted social freedom either in the military outside of the United States or in one of the few pockets of racial civilization within the country. When she worked at Maxwell AFB near her home, Rosa Parks had a taste of freedom; when she went back home to Montgomery, she was infuriated by the lack of it. This prompted her acting out on the bus.

Though sometimes mischaracterized as a reluctant crusader, Rosa Parks was the ideal person to challenge segregation from a legal standpoint; bright, articulate, educated and polite, with an endless well of dignity.

Rosa Parks' passing evokes memories of Jim Crow laws in Memphis, as a child. My mother had four babies before she was 25. She couldn't have done it without the nurturing help of Mary Sue Guy, our black nanny who was close in age and temperament to Rosa Parks. As Mary was a member of our family, we closely observed some of the outrage and hurts that she experienced in Jim Crow Memphis. We never saw any violence but plenty of ugly incidents and bad behavior.

The integration of my elementary school with one black child in 1963 brought a heavy police presence on the first day and a squad car at the front door for the first month of school. As the threats and novelty dissipated, so did the need for a police presence.

I can remember driving through Alabama and Mississippi on the way to Gulf Coast vacations as a child. While Memphis had elements of Jim Crow in the early 1960's, it was a bastion of enlightenment compared to Alabama and Mississippi. Memphis had signs designating "white" and "colored" entrances at movie theatres, restaurants, public restrooms and other f acilities. At Cotton Carnival in May, there was a "white" and "colored" parade. Whites could use colored facilities if necessary, but most did not. Expressions of indignity among blacks were carefully measured throughout the 1960's. That illuminates the uncommon bravery that Rosa Parks exhibited a decade earlier, in a much nastier climate.

Our family stops at roadside restaurants and markets in rural Alabama and Mississippi in the early 1960's, gave us better illustrations about the realities of segregation. On one trip, we stopped at a restaurant that was crowded with a line out the door. I walked in with my father, who asked how long the wait would be for a table. The owner said, "It'll be at least half an hour, but if you don't mind eating with the colored, we can seat you back there now."

We were hungry and we didn't care, so we were escorted back to the "colored" dining room where we were warmly received. I remember being reminded by both parents to be extra polite to everybody, in reference to the rednecks who were giving us dirty looks. Apparently, not too many local white folks opted for the quicker service of the colored dining room, and preferred to wait in line. That's how they knew we were from out of town. And we didn't look like a church-going family. After lunch, we drove away very fast. I also remember my father's southern accent being a little thicker that day. Smart dad.

Beale Street in Memphis was a center for black music, culture, education and enlightenment from the 1920's until it was destroyed by urban renewal in the 1960's. The theory of urban renewal was to tear down the slums and old shops and build new ones. The problem was, federal officials only paid attention to the "tear down" part. Many wonderful, vital neighborhoods and businesses were destroyed by urban renewal, and replaced by ... nothing.

The destruction of Beale Street was minor compared to the widespread devastation of the City of Pittsburgh and others at the time. Thankfully, Beale Street made a comeback in the early 1980's and it is now a vital entertainment district, not far from the Lorraine Motel National Civil Rights Museum.

It was at the opening of the NCRM in 1991 where I had the pleasure of meeting Rosa Parks, as she was the guest of honor. This small, quiet woman was the most commanding presence of the evening, among a roster of luminaries that included Coretta Scott King, Rep. John Lewis, Sen. Jim Sasser, Denise Rich (yes, that Denise Rich) , Cybil Shepard, Pete Seeger and D'Army Bailey. Bailey was the chairman of the NCRM in the early years and the driving force behind the creation of the museum on the sight where Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed.

In the Bay Area, Bailey is remembered for his alliance with the Black Panthers as a Berkeley City Councilman in the early 1970's. He was recalled from the City Council in 1973 for being too radical and threatening. In Memphis, Bailey is a state judge and respected elder statesman in the community. One would be hard pressed to find anyone who benefited more from the courage of Rosa Parks and MLK than Bailey. Indeed, is there any man in America who has gone more dramatically from "radical" to "mainstream?" (He also has an acting role as the mean-spirited judge who convicts Larry Flynt in "The People vs. Larry Flynt.")

Photo of Rosa Parks.Rosa Parks' simple act of defiance was considered "radical" at the time. So was the dramatic demonstration of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand for the 200 meters in the 1968 Olympics. We now perceive those acts to be defining moments in American history and they are properly recognized as heroes. Recently, San Jose State, the alma mater of Smith and Carlos, honored them with a larger-than-life statue commemorating their bravery and initiative. Like Parks, they suffered mightily for their bravery at the time, including being expelled from the Olympics. They are now universally acclaimed as heroes in mainstream America.

It is astounding that any campaign for fairness and decency could be considered "radical". Yet, American politics has sadly come full circle to where campaigns for fairness and decency are once again considered "radical." ?To the political mainstream, both Democratic and Republican, it is considered radical to argue for an end to corporate welfare and the beginning of universal health care coverage. It is now considered radical to argue against tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans in order to pay for hurricane recovery. And it is considered radical to argue that young children from poor families have a right to decent education, food and medical care.

The Republican Party has not always been so mean-spirited. And the Democratic Party has not always been compliant with the Republican agenda.

Let's hope that the Democrats might draw some inspiration from the passing of Rosa Parks, and remember what their agenda drove and accomplished in the 1960's. It's time for Democrats to stop fooling themselves, by thinking they can accomplish anything by working within the framework of the Republican agenda. It's time to remember what distinguished Democrats from the Republicans at one time, and reclaim the agenda. That would be the least we could do to honor the memory of Rosa Parks.




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