What's All This Then?

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

I suppose it’s being noted in schools across the country as well as on the editorial and op-ed pages of the nation’s newspapers - as it was during last night’s world series game when the public address announcer asked for a moment of silence in memory of Rosa Parks - a little ironic considering that the Astros don’t have a single black player on their roster!!.

What many of the discussions and commentaries and retrospectives will be focusing on - or have already focused on - is what her life and her single act of defiance on December 1, 1955 symbolizes - for black Americans - for White Americans and for Americans of every other hue and color and origin.

I asked that question of Internet search engines - an easier way than trying to read dozens of newspapers or checking with school principals and teachers. The answers were more or less what you might expect them to be. "What Freedom is About." "Resistance to oppression." "Endurance and Dignity." "What a difference one person can make." All noble thoughts and ideas. And well deserved fore this courageous woman.

But for me, what happened on a bus on a winter’s day in Montgomery, Alabama fifty years ago, symbolizes something dark and shameful - and to this day, frightening. Frightening that it ever could have happened.

In 1955, I had only been back in the United States a short time. I had lived in New York as a child, but after my mother died there, my father took me and my brother back to England where we had all been born - and I spent most of my formative years there. In 1955, I had yet to have any first hand experience with any laws of racial discrimination. That came a year later when I drove from Chicago to Miami for a vacation and found myself both embarrassed and frightened by the conduct of black people that we met as we traveled through the south - black people who acted in a subservient manner towards me and my wife, as though it was their duty and our right for them to act in this manner.

And that came after Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man and the success of the Montgomery Bus boycott. It took a long time before her act of courage resulted in any substantial change to the despicable laws of racial discrimination that were in effect throughout the south. For someone who had been brought up in an ancient democracy, it was inconceivable to me that there could be laws of this nature in a sister democracy. Laws that said that some citizens were inferior to other for genetic reasons and should be treated accordingly.

This was a scant ten years from the end of World War ll. - and the horrors unleashed by a madman who also enacted laws labeling some citizens inferior to others because of their ethnicity and stripping them of all their rights - including the right to remain alive.

Our discriminatory laws were not as harsh as Nazi Germany’s - but they were bad enough. Because of them, black citizens could be put to death with little fear that their killers would ever have to face trial for the crime of murder - let alone be fearful of punishment. And this was just fifty years ago - not in ancient times. It was almost yesterday. It was in the middle of the 20th century. It was in one of the world’s leading democracies - a democracy on the way to becoming the world’s greatest super power and the world’s leading champion of the concept of freedom.

How could we have lived in modern times and in the dark ages at the same time? The same word keeps coming back to me when I think about what used to be. Inconceivable! Inconceivable that we allowed a hangover from that despicable period of our history when slavery was legal - and continued to treat human beings in our midst as little more than slaves almost a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

And even though we like to think of the time of legal racial discrimination as something that has gone away and can never return - and people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks as national heroes - to be revered and even celebrated with a national holiday - the residual effects of those "bygone" days are still with us and the memory of how we once were - not that long ago - burns deeply in our national psyche.

Now here we are in the early years of the twenty first century, preaching the concept of freedom being "Gods’ gift" to all the people of the world, lecturing other countries about freedom and human rights and even launching our military might to impose our concept of freedom on another country.

Nothing wrong with trying to spread freedom and democracy to the far corners of the earth. I support the concept wholeheartedly. All people should be free. All people should have the right to elect their leaders in free elections. Nothing wrong with the United States preaching those concepts. But I’m not sure that we’re far enough away from that December day in 1955 to expect other countries of the world to take us that seriously when we tell them how they ought to be conducting themselves - particularly when we do it with bullets and missiles.