On Saturday, October 29, 2005 I visited the St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in Montgomery to view the deceased Rosa Parks. Reverend Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton had just left the church that was honored to house this remarkable 92 year old woman. Throngs of people surrounded the church along with the press and a steady stream of people entering and leaving the church sanctuary. One of the old 1950’s Montgomery buses was parked outside the church and people were walking in and out of it to witness the 5th row where Mrs. Parks kept her seat and launched a revolution.
Mrs. Parks died on October 24. Earlier in the morning, before visiting the AME church, I had attended the funeral of the father of a black friend who had also died on October 24. He lived in a small rural southern town south of Montgomery and, at the age of 92, was of the same generation as Rosa Parks.
This small rural town in south Alabama is strikingly up close and personal like so many in the south. They are invariably marked by extreme poverty of both whites and blacks, along with a few wealthy whites living in the old antebellum houses surrounding the town square. The squares increasingly include countless vacant shops. This is the result, of course, of agricultural and industrial interests vacating the area and leaving our rural towns without a vibrant agricultural production system and other opportunities. Burned buildings and dilapidated vacant houses also usually dot the main and side streets off the square, reflecting the lack of resources and an adequate tax base of most local governments to address these often dangerous structures. This described my friend’s town.
Like most rural towns in south, this one’s racial and cultural expressions were boldly exposed. There’s the “Dixie” store on the “main” street, with the huge confederate flag waving outside, enticing customers in to purchase every conceivable item imaginable that bears the confederate symbol, such as cigarette lighters, t-shirts, mail boxes and hats. Minus an agricultural and industrial base, many whites in the rural south, from “Dixie” stores to gas stations, are earning from the southern white supremacy symbolsor perhaps because there is virtually nothing else of note, these economic eyesores become all the more apparent. Then, of course, there was the variety store with a statue of Elvis prominently displayed.
Just down the street from the “Dixie” store was Martin Luther King Street where we turned to go to the Baptist church for the funeral. Usually when going down streets in the south named after Dr. King, you expect to see black residents or businesses. Not so here. Just off main street, this M. L. King Street was the home of countless poor whites until about a half mile away, and finally close to the church, the homes of the also poor blacks were apparent. Maybe we can call this a separate but equal street naming policy in which both blacks and whites are exposed to the symbolic legacy of Dr. King.
The naming of streets is almost always controversial in the South. In Atlanta, for example, often when one long road encompassed both black and white residents albeit highly segregated – white leaders made a point of giving these streets at least two names to indicate which part of the road was predominantly black or white.
The M. L. King Street with its black and white residents reminded me of the time when cotton was king in the south, when blacks and whites alike worked as sharecroppers or tenant farmers. They served at the behest of the south’s white elite until mechanized cotton pickers became widely available and until an increasingly globalized market have taken much of their sustenance away. Now both these rural black and whites suffer the consequences of capitalists seeking to exploit yet another depressed low wage area of the world.
Raised in this rural cotton producing town in south Alabama and quietly battling Jim Crow in the heart of the deep south, my friend’s father and mother bravely managed to raise and college educate their four children in what remains a vital black community. It revolves largely around the local Baptist churches. In spite of all, blacks invariably built powerful and unified communities to support their children and extended families in the rural south. Since 1865 at the end of the Civil War and before that, in fact, they have developed a profound sense of place.
After viewing Mrs. Parks, we visited the 87 year old grandmother of another friend from Montgomery. She lived just west of downtown Montgomery. As we traveled down the road to her house we passed the huge vacant Trinity Steel Mill with numerous dilapidated buildings filled with rusted equipment. We were told that blacks in the area would go to school to learn how to weld, knowing that jobs would be available in the millbut no more!
Visiting my friend’s grandmother, we sat in the living room of her small charming house that was built by the family. She held court. She had yet to see Mrs. Parks and intended on doing so. She reflected upon her participation in the Montgomery Bus Boycott that was launched by Mrs. Parks’ courageous challenge of the Jim Crow segregation transportation policies in December of 1955.
Every weekday during the boycott in 1956 she walked some 20 miles to work as a domestic in the white area of Montgomery. She’d then walk home to care for her own twelve children. “It was hard work,” she said. “We didn’t have any automatic clothes washers and dryers or any electric items to speak of. Everything was done by hand or with tubs. And we also had to be careful where we walked back then. You couldn’t let your children wander into ‘Boylston’ (a housing area close to hers) because it was filled with the Klan and you might not come out alive.”
She told us that she had her first child at 17 years old in the 1930’s and was picking cotton prior to that in her teens. After her child was born she continued to pick cotton. “You had to pick cotton if you were going to raise your family,” she said.
After we left her house we were shown the “big” house of the plantation owner not far from hers, that was surrounded by cotton fields in the 1930’s and 40’s, and is now completely urbanized no sign of fields much less cotton. She was paid by the how many pounds of cotton she’d picked. “I’d work all week and go back on Saturday to get paid,” she said. “Sometimes it was $2.00 and we thought that was a lot.”
University of Georgia historian James Cobb was featured in the Atlanta Constitution on Sunday, October 30. He referred to the fact that many blacks are now claiming their southern heritage and calling themselves “southerners”. In American lore, the distinction of being a southerner has been reserved for the white aristocracy or the white racist “rednecks” waving the confederate flag and whistling Dixie.
Yet, Cobb’s assessment rings true. Many of us, both blacks and whites alike, who have been raised in the south have a hate/love relationship with the region. It’s excessive violence, bigotry, intolerance and fundamentalist Christian hypocrisy drive us away. Then there’s always the economic challenges in our exploited low-wage south by both the agricultural and industrial sectors described above. Without doubt, there is much work to be done on that score! Yet, by the same token, the cultural richness of the region, the sense of place and community coupled with movements for justice are compelling.
Think of it! What largely defines American culture has its roots in rural southern communities. From the Appalachian rural areas of the south, those of the English white working class heritage evolved with the mushrooming of Bluegrass creativity and music. From the rural southern black community and the roots of the African beats, evolved the dynamic and creative blues and jazz that resonate throughout the world.
But the movements for justice in the south are a whole other matter and the black community has led the way. And for many of us who are white, such as me, we will be eternally grateful. Civil rights attorney J.L. Chestnut says that when Rosa Parks sat down she helped all of us to stand. Indeed, she helped launch a movement for the rights of blacks, leading to women’s rights, to gay rights, to student activism and onand she also did this in the 1950’s one year after Joe McCarthy was condemned for spewing his anti-communist hatred in the halls of the U.S. Senate. Yet the anti-communist sentiments prevailed making organizing against oppression all the more complex and difficult. A pale beyond Jim Crow had enveloped the nation. Mrs. Parks was brave to be sure she’d had enough of this arrogance in the Jim Crow south and the nation.
When Mrs. Parks launched the modern civil rights movement in 1955 in the United States, she inspired millions throughout the world and joined the great world movement for justice (witness, for example, the 1955 Bandung, Indonesia conference that launched the non-aligned movement and the 1955 adoption of the South African Freedom Charter in Kliptown, South Africa). By honoring Rosa Parks, we also honor those, such as the 92 year old father and 87 year old grandmother above, who also heroically led the way in attempting to make the world more humane and just. Frail and small in her coffin, Mrs. Parks was, in fact, a giant. She has made countless of us proud to be southerners and to stake our claim on the region, the nation and the world. Thank you Rosa Parks.
HEATHER GRAY has produced “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.