Then to side with Truth is noble when we share her wretched crust, Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and it is prosperous to be just; Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside, Doubting in his abject spirit, till his Lord is crucified.
–James Russell Lowell
Rosa Parks was bid final farewell at a ceremony in Detroit earlier this week.
The array of notables paying tribute was like a page from a stargazer’s guide to the Democratic firmament: Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, Barack Obama, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. President Clinton too was there, briefly, weaving words as only he can.
The speeches were moving, even heartfelt. But no tribute could surpass the original story. The very simplicity of some actions gives them power and eternal beauty. The story of one ordinary individual’s decision to challenge an obviously unjust dispensation and an ongoing travesty that yet did not appear to trouble the establishment, was moving enough. By her simple act, she had electrified the conscience of the entire country.
That at least is the legend. The truth is a lot less dramatic, though no less powerful for that.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott continued for a year. During that time, how many senators, governors and congressmen would you suppose descended on Alabama to lend support to the boycotters? I don’t know exactly, but here’s my wild guess: less than the fingers on one hand. On the other hand, how many ordinary people had their lives changed by Rosa Parks’ example? My guess again: tens of thousands. Bill Clinton recalled that after hearing of Rosa Parks, he and a couple of his friends, all around 9 years of age, decided that they would sit in the back of the bus as a measure of support of Rosa Parks!
That was the boy Clinton. The politician and president would have done things differently, waiting to see how it all shook out, probably taking the additional safeguard of having Dick Morris run a poll first.
It is often said that politicians have no shame, but it is their general stupidity, borne of endless fear and calculation, that is more distinct. Hillary Clinton spoke of how all of us can have our “Rosa Parks Moment”. John Kerry said: “the bus still comes by, again and again, and each time we have to decide whether to go quietly to the back, or by simple acts of courage and conviction, change the direction of our own country’s journey…The life of Rosa Parks demands deeds, not epitaphs.”
Beautiful words. Though not applicable, evidently, to the Iraq War Resolution.
At the end of the Gandhi Centenary Year in 1969, when leaders in India were eulogizing the father of the nation, declaring that Gandhi was eternally valid, my father, who edited a journal, wrote an editorial titled, “Mahatma Managed”, where he observed how, while everyone in authority was saying that Gandhi was relevant at all places and all times, they had failed to clarify whether he was relevant for our place and our time.
There is nothing less risky than praising a dead icon. There is nothing more risky than standing with a living one who, to use John Kerry’s words for Rosa Parks, “speaks truth to power”.
The most striking tribute of all at the Detroit ceremony was by a preacher who spoke some words from the scripture: “he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies”, a theme echoed by Gandhi when he launched the Quit India movement in 1942: “He who loses his life will gain it; he who will seek to save it shall lose it. Freedom is not for the coward or the faint-hearted.”
Gandhi’s words are just as true of political lives. Hillary Clinton ‘s Rosa Parks moment came and went last summer, when she could have have gone to Crawford to show support for Cindy Sheehan. John Kerry missed every bus that came his way — the entire campaign was a series of missed buses.
Buses were missed, but planes were caught. As Congressman John Conyers of Michigan exulted at the memorial, two full planeloads of the US Congress had come to Detroit to pay tribute to Rosa Parks.
Imagine if two planeloads of the US Congress, containing the same worthies who had descended on Detroit with such alacrity, had gone to Texas this summer and camped out in the ditch outside Bush’s Ranch…
But Cindy Sheehan is alive and troublesome. Rosa Parks is dead and safe. Therein lies the difference.