A Class Action suit should begin with a Class Act.
That is to say: a Movement based on the man (or woman), if it is to be sustainable, should be predicated on the injustice suffered by one or more persons of exemplary character; so as to strengthen the case and galvanize those who fight it.
Profound. But what do I mean by this?
Allow me to preface this discussion with a rhetorical question: Was Rosa Parks the only African heritage person who refused to comply with Jim Crow law on public transportation?
Before we delve into qualifications of the man (or woman) behind the movement I’d like to debunk a pair of myths attributed to the legend that is Rosa Parks. The infamous civil rights stand that was taken by remaining seated has been embellished, as orators tend to do with legends over time, in a couple ways that I want to touch on here. There is the comedic, “Why I gotta get up; I’m tired too,” reply Mrs. Parks was say to have given the authorities when asked to get up; as if laziness more than liberty was the motivating factor.
But the embellishment I think is most harmful to the Honorable Rosa Parks’ legacy is the rendition of her sitting in the white section and then when asked refusing to relinquish the seat. This version of events is not only false but paints Mrs. Parks as a rabble-rouser. No, what she did that faithful day was far more dignified.
First off, Mrs. Parks was sitting in the back; in the designated “colored” section. She would have likely entered the front of the bus only to pay her fare, then exited the bus, walked toward the rear, reentered the bus, and then took a seat; just as the law and social etiquette in those days required. (Sometimes the bastard of a bus driver would pull out before the black patron could reenter the bus through the back door.)
But there was one other obligation imposed upon African heritage people. They were expected to give up their seat to a white person in the event the “white only” section was full. (There wasn’t a “colored only” section. Whites could sit wherever they wanted.) Well, on this day the white only section was full:
*Rosa Parks: I was arrested on December 1st, 1955 for refusing to stand up on the orders of the bus driver, after the white seats had been occupied in the front. And of course, I was not in the front of the bus as many people have written and spoken that I was — that I got on the bus and took the front seat, but I did not. I took a seat that was just back of where the white people were sitting, in fact, the last seat. A man was next to the window, and I took an aisle seat and there were two women across. We went on undisturbed until about the second or third stop when some white people boarded the bus and left one man standing. And when the driver noticed him standing, he told us to stand up and let him have those seats. He referred to them as front seats. And when the other three people — after some hesitancy — stood up, he wanted to know if I was going to stand up, and I told him I was not. And he told me he would have me arrested. And I told him he may do that. And of course, he did.
*Information found at: http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/par0int-1
Why was her arrest significant? Wasn’t she after all just a black woman (a double minority) who was essentially arrested for “not staying in a negro’s place?” But if her lot in life was the full measure of the matter then why did this particular arrest galvanize the black community of Montgomery Alabama in such a way as to spark a year long bus boycott? Could it have been because Rosa Parks was herself a class act; an active community member of good standing and reputation? Perhaps it was her role as secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP.
Just how necessary is it to rally behind a movement whose martyr (be it literal or figurative martyrdom) is of honorable character and reputation, i.e. a class act? I believe it is absolutely necessary, if the movement is to have a martyr at all, and if that movement is to grow beyond an infinitesimal size and region of the country. In the past there have been explosive short-lived movements associated with questionable martyrs, e.g. Rodney King; whose attempt to evade police at high speeds on March 3, 1991 resulted in an excessive force riddled arrest, as well as martyrs who were more than deserving yet spawned little movement to speak of, e.g. Medgar Evers; assassinated June 12, 1963 in his own driveway because of his work in civil rights; a man who is today a little known civil rights leader.
Had Rosa Parks been of blemished reputation and a known instigator within the black community I imagine the Montgomery Bus Boycott would not have gone beyond that first day. The M.I.A. (Montgomery Improvement Association) would not have been formed, at least not at that time. The boycott would not have gone for another 380 days. And there may have never been a Martin Luther King Jr.
Taking this a step further, could there have been an M.I.A. movement without a martyr? Absolutely, possibility exists. But perhaps history has taught us that movements are more likely built on the backs of martyrs than not. In which case these cornerstones need to be square and sound.
Regarding my opening question:
*Parks was not the first person to resist bus segregation. Others had taken similar steps, including Irene Morgan in 1946, Sarah Louise Keys in 1955, and the members of the Browder v. Gayle lawsuit (Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith) who were arrested in Montgomery months before Parks. NAACP organizers believed that Parks was the best candidate for seeing through a court challenge after her arrest for civil disobedience in violating Alabama segregation laws, although eventually her case became bogged down in the state courts while the Browder v. Gayle case succeeded
*Information found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosa_Parks
Rosa Parks was not tired physically. She was sick and tired philosophically. She did not break the written law by sitting in the front of the bus. Rather she refused to comply with an unwritten rule by remaining in her public seat; a seat for which she paid. She wasn’t the first, rather only, to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat. And by pointing this out I in no way intend to tarnish or diminish her legacy.
So before we march arm in arm on Washington D.C., walk through the streets of Ferguson Mo. with our hands up, stand shoulder to shoulder in Sanford, Fl. wearing hoodies, burn Los Angeles, again, or organize a national Class Action suit based on an injustice experienced by a specific individual, let us make sure the martyr of our movement is himself or herself a class act. One who can “stand up” to scrutiny, for our sake. Build our house upon a solid foundation; upon a rock not sand. So that when the rains descend and floors rise our house weather all storms. An indivisible house; united against all adversaries.
God forbid raw emotion overrules sound reason and we dilute the potent legacies of our past martyrs by saturating their ranks with every black Tom, brown Dick, and dirty Harry who has an unfavorable encounter with law enforcement. There must be more to being a black martyr than being injured or killed in a conflict with some non-black person regardless of the circumstances. Especially since a movement doesn’t require a martyr.
I love my people, probably more than would be proper to express publicly. So don’t get it twisted. All I’m saying is, let’s make sure that the blow we strike on behalf of the black community is not only mighty, but that it is also righteous!
And oh yeah, please know that marching is a euphemism for fighting back.