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Destination: Freedom

Rosa Parks couldn’t have died at a better moment. A nation atomized and nearly asphyxiated in the 21st century by political, economic, cultural, racial and judicial factions — a nation no one predicted lay in wait 50 years past the moment Parks started a revolution of conscience in 1955 — was more than eager to pay its respects. More than eager to recall a proud moment in what we once felt was our collective history. From social crusaders to die-hard segregationists, whatever one thought of Rosa Parks, her sit-down in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, was the ultimate moment of truth in a 350-year-long crisis — and everybody knew it. What she did demanded a response, and everyone knew that, too. In 1955, it was not about polls or partisan politics or games of one-upmanship, things we take so seriously now but which have always been mere tissue paper over the rock the Rosa Parks moment touched on, landed on, the igneous rock of American character that always asked the question, sometimes in a murmur, other times in a shout: What kind of people are we? It was a big question, loud, awful in the most biblical sense, which is why Orval Faubus and George Wallace tried to block integration so dramatically some years later, why college students who’d never been South in their lives risked them to travel there and register black people to vote. For all the ugliness and for all the battles that wound up half-won, it was a romantic time in our history; we know that now. Rosa Parks challenged us to fight for our soul, and we accepted the challenge. As with the Civil War, the outcome of the fight is almost another discussion, but that we engaged in it to the extent that we did feels, in the increasingly forgiving glow of hindsight, like some sort of triumph.We don’t have triumphs like that anymore. We don’t pose big challenges to ourselves, and we don’t engage. We certainly don’t have heroes or symbols, especially plain citizens like Parks who, in simply standing her ground — or staying in her seat — helped change the course of national events. Last but hardly least, we have precious few black figures whom we feel good about eulogizing these days, people who mainstream America would define as a “uniter” — in short, those who have dropped the cause of black freedom or softened it sufficiently to merit the title, ease white and/or suburban anxiety and earn a seat at the table of power. (You have to wonder, what will be said of Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan or even Kweisi Mfume when they’re gone? Not the same that will be said of Barack Obama.) Ironically, “uniter” is not a label Parks was given in 1955, or one that she would have even accepted as accurate — while her cause was universal, her actions divided plenty of people along racial lines, inspiring at least as much bone-deep hatred among whites as tentative hope among blacks that change would finally come.We have made many strange, uncourageous compromises since Rosa Parks’ uncompromising moment, and so there has been a rush to remember her but not the current state of black inequality (following an American credo of when in doubt, focus on the individual to the exclusion of issues), which is what we really need to examine if we want to fairly assess her legacy. But no one did.So it was that her body lay in state and was accorded honors reserved for dead presidents — however deserving she was of such treatment, it was also overcompensation for the fact that as a country, we buried Parks’ straightforward brand of race activism and quiet vigilance years ago. So it was, too, that everyone crowded the podium to lay claim to her pioneering spirit, including Condoleezza Rice, an Alabama native who solemnly declared that without Parks and the civil rights movement she catalyzed, she most likely would not be speaking now as secretary of state. True enough, though there’s much more to that equation than meets the eye; a conservative, Rice has long been known for a distinct lack of empathy for anything resembling black interests, has advanced in part because of it, and could not have been what Parks had in mind when she imagined better and more empowering times ahead for black people in a post-segregation world. Though even as a hagiography, Parks is proving something of a Rorschach test for racial justice specifically and social justice in general: To people like Rice and her benefactor George W. Bush, she changed things forever. To the Rev. Al Sharpton and U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, she fostered a movement that was brilliant but is far from finished, a movement that is up to us and to future generations to complete. To media mogul and self-affirmation queen Oprah Winfrey, Parks’ greatest contribution was forcing the world to acknowledge the humanity of all, though in her very public life and myriad projects, Oprah frequently alludes to, rather than spells out, a racial reality that still sullies the ideal.But it is the ideal of Parks that everyone is equally happy to seize on in troubled times — as reassurance or as a palliative, as a much-needed moral critique or a symbol of the bold people we once were and might be again. A tenuous unity at best, though it’s always encouraging for me to remember that in the beginning, before she set off one of the most significant movements and forged one of the most significant moments in the dwindling moments in our collective history, Rosa Parks acted alone.


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