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The death of civil rights activist Rosa Parks has caused me to think about courage and the apparent paucity of it today among so many. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man in a black section of a bus in Alabama and sparked a civil rights revolution. The courageous act of defiance occurred at a time when black men were lynched for lesser acts in the Deep South. Although she had not broken any laws, Ms. Parks was arrested and taken to jail. Rosa Park’s courage brought into prominence a young minister by the Name of Martin Luther King. Soon afterwards, the Montgomery bus boycott was organized and a movement was born. America would never be the same.
Civil rights activists Rosa Parks, Dr. King, and Malcolm X faced grave threats from the white supremacists who ruled the slave states of the south. History records that Dr. King and Malcolm X were assassinated because of the threat they posed to the established order. These extraordinary people understood that a price would have to be paid. Freedom isn’t free. It is paid for with the bravery and blood of good people. In America-the land that fosters apartheid-freedom is not delivered to one’s door. Freedom is not guaranteed by the constitution; nor is it actualized by the bill of rights. The police and the National Guard, as has always been the case when oppressed people rise up to demand their freedom, sided with the oppressors. Thus, we know they exist to protect the interests of the wealthy and powerful, not as guardians of democracy; nor as purveyors of justice, as we have been mislead to believe by the history books.
Rosa Parks acted out of a sense of outrage against the gross injustice of racial segregation. Buoyed by an immense reservoir of inner courage and innate decency, a simple act of defiance allowed this ordinary woman to free herself from her oppressors. The dangers faced by those in the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties cannot be overstated. Thousands of black people were beaten, castrated, burned and lynched by white supremacists. Their homes were burned and even children were brutally murdered by faceless cowards in white hoods. Few of them were ever prosecuted. Does anyone remember Emit Till? Yet Rosa Parks found the courage to act against injustice. And that seemingly innocuous act changed the political and social landscape of America. But the work of transforming America is unfinished.
To look at Rosa Parks’ slight body lying in that casket in Detroit this week, one wouldn’t think that she could have ignited the civil rights movement. One wouldn’t have thought that she could have brought down the Ku Klux Klan, the institution of slavery; the tradition of racial segregation. But she did. Her advice was to ‘Free yourself.’
In other words: don’t wait for justice to come to you. Go out and make it happen. Be just. Don’t wait for anyone else. ‘Free yourself.’
This is exactly what Thoreau meant when he stated: ‘A Power rises behind every individual that would float the British Empire like a chip.’ Power to the people. The power lies within us; but like Rosa Parks, and so many other spirited people from every walk of life who fought for justice and equality-it requires courage to bring it to life. Ideas devoid of action are just ideas. They can accomplish nothing of their own accord. It is conviction that changes everything. Conviction leads to action. Action is what brings about change.
What is so puzzling about the spectacular failure of courage from the multitudes today is that we face none of the threats and consequences faced by Rosa Parks, Dr. King, and organized labor in its hey day. By comparison, we have nothing to be afraid of. Yet we are paralyzed by fear. Fear of what? Are we afraid of phantom weapons of mass destruction? Are we afraid of ghosts? Do we fear the truth of American history? It is fear that keeps us from taking action. What ever happened to courage?
Are there no more Rosa Parks moving among us today? Did hope for social justice and simple human dignity get buried with Thoreau, Mother Jones, Joe Hill, Dr. King and Rosa Parks?
Horrendous traumas like the Bush presidency, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, a world wide array of secret gulags and torture chambers are birthed in darkness when courage gives way to fear in the masses. It was the failure of courage that allowed the liquidation of millions of Jews to happen in Nazi Germany. The most absurd tragedies of human behavior occur because good people allow them to happen. So much tragedy, so much suffering among so many people could have been alleviated had our courage overcome our fear. All any of us have to do is to follow the sage advice of Rosa Parks: ‘Free yourself.’
Had enough of us freed ourselves from our fears and allowed courage to bubble to the surface, more than a hundred thousand Iraqi people; more than two thousand American soldiers would be alive today. Their dreams and hopes would be alive too. A heavily medicated George Bush and his cronies in the evil empire would be serving the remainder of their miserable lives in prison. The world would be a better, safer, and more beautiful place.
CHARLES SULLIVAN is a furniture maker, photographer, and free lance writer residing in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.