By Linda V. Parker
Director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
It has been a month since the burial of Rosa Parks, mother of the civil rights movement and truly one of America’s greatest freedom fighters. And fittingly, the tributes continue.
Civil rights activists and others dedicated to the cause of equality and freedom remembered the 50th anniversary of the start of the Montgomery bus boycott led by Mrs. Parks on Dec. 1, 1955.
It was the Montgomery Bus Boycott, lasting some 381 days – spurred by Mrs. Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama – that gave birth to the modern civil rights movement.
Recognition of this single historic act was celebrated throughout Detroit and the metropolitan area by many through lecture, song and film. Yet, as laudable and as important as each one of these activities was to preserving and honoring Mrs. Parks’ legacy, these events in and of themselves are not enough. Her legacy and the future of our country deserve much more.
As we move forward with displays of reverence for her courage and lifetime commitment to social and racial justice, we must be careful not to fall into the trap of placing symbolism over substance. Or, as the Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Council so eloquently put it at Mrs. Parks memorial service, we must move from “ceremony to sacrament.’’
While providing lectures, films, choral arrangements and even symbolically placing her name among the heroes in the pantheon of American history is right and appropriate; these honors do not call for the sacrament of sacrifice or commitment beyond today.
The challenge for those of us who wish to honor Mrs. Parks is to continue to fight for the issues to which she dedicated her life. The list is long and includes voting rights, poverty, and combating the profound and relentless segregation that continues to distort the reality of life among residents of the U.S. in general and Michigan in particular.
Because even as we rightly honor Mrs. Parks for her role in expanding democracy in our nation we live in a time and age right now where many of those very gains made by people of color and women during the civil rights movement are under withering assault by our courts, certain elected officials and anti-civil rights activists.
In fact, for many involved daily in the struggle for civil rights, we see ourselves living in perilous times.
So how can we move from ceremony to sacrament? Fortunately, there are very concrete steps that can be taken – right now. Among them are to work with local and national civil rights organizations to demand that the U.S. Congress and President Bush renew the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with its “pre-clearance section’’ not only in tact but strengthened and expanded to prevent the types of voter intimidation and harassment we have witnessed both locally and nationally over the last several election cycles.
We can aggressively defend affirmative action right here in Michigan by opposing efforts to amend the state constitution to ban one of the few effective mechanisms available to address segregation and the disparities that it continues to create.
We can choose not to prejudge the quality of work produced by a co worker of an ethnicity different from our own. We can reach out to that family who has moved into our neighborhood with a skin color, religion or sexual orientation that is different from our own.
We would do well to remember what the Rev. Al Sharpton so eloquently expressed about Mrs. Parks at her funeral; that she did not make history because she made a popular movie or sang a popular song. “Rosa Parks is in history because she made this nation deal with changing the laws and policies of this nation – unlike anybody else.”
So let’s continue to celebrate Rosa Parks with lectures, films, songs, and other activities because she deserves to be celebrated. But when we are finished let us honor her in a way that moves us from “ceremony to sacrament”.
Linda V. Parker is a Detroit attorney and director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.