Free-Floating Hostility

Monday, October 24, 2005

In Memoriam

I met Rosa Parks in 1990.

It was the night that Nelson Mandela visited Detroit in his post-release tour of the country that year. He gave a speech at Tiger Stadium that evening, but before that there were a series of receptions at the Westin Hotel. One of them was a youth reception, and I scored a ticket through the National Lawyers Guild of which my mother it a member. Mandela was running late, and he never made the youth reception. The closest I got to him, was to stand on the other hand of a wall of photographers who were snapping pictures as he made his way out of the hotel and toward the stadium.

My memories of the night are a little fractured. I remember that I started to develop an ear infection, which colored much of my interactions with people like my sister who was also there. I also remember that we were instructed to shout, when Mandela walked into our ballroom, "Mandela, Mandela" instead of "Amandla Mandela," which actually means "Power" in Swahili. And I remember being shuttled into a room to meet Rosa Parks. She sat in a quiet corner of another ballroom greeting people. It was late and she seemed tired, but she was very kind and listened politely to the inane and nervous babblings of me, age 10. She then signed my guest badge. I never much went in for autographs at baseball games after that. I mean, once she's signed something for you, it seems silly to ask some guy who can throw a baseball 100 miles per hour for his autograph.

Parks' decision not to go to the back of the bus is one of those historical moments around which time divides itself into before and after (I love that phrase, although I know I didn't make it up.) The history of Montgomery's buses is such that she was not the first to be arrested for refusing to move when ordered by bus driver. But she was someone whose background was unimpeachable, who could become a rallying point for a movement that espoused the radical notion that blacks and whites weren't all that different in their aspirations and values. That the boycott was stage managed takes nothing away from the enormity of what she did. Systemic racism is generally a passive system. And it breaks down when oppressed peoples are finally united and brave enough to say "no more." It takes someone to be the first. To be the first person who challenges the system. And that was Parks, who is undeniably an American hero.

FFH mourns her passing.

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