Freedom in America - 18 June 1999
When you see, on television, some protest rally - I mean a spontaneous protest, people suddenly taking to the streets brandishing fists, howling insults, waving posters - do you ever wonder who planned the spontaneousness of it all?
We'd long ago accepted that in totalitarian countries - whose tyrannical system is disguised from the start by calling it a people's republic - in tyrannies we know that a people's uprising is as well planned as a coronation.
But I'm always surprised, after 40-50 years of television, why commentators on riots and demonstrations still use the phrase "the people took to the streets" when, from the evidence of the posters they flourish, somebody must have ordered them to appear at the double, or else.
The posters: a genuine spontaneous uprising has single nasty words scrawled in paint on random sheets or has no posters at all.
The regular popular protests - anti-abortion, anti-war, anti-hunting whatever - usually have professionally-printed placards in coloured letters, the order for which must have gone out weeks in advance of "the spontaneous uprising".
This struck me with new force this week when we saw everywhere - on television, on the front pages of newspapers, cover stories of magazines - the face of a sweet old lady with golden spectacles, her white hair swept up and topped off with a ropey knot, sitting alongside the President of the United States and the Speaker of the House.
She was the heroine of a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington before an audience of about a thousand, the Congress - including a senator in his 90s who 44 years ago was the old lady's bitterest enemy. Miss Rosa Parks was awarded a rare honour - the Congressional Gold Medal.
It goes back to George Washington and the last two recipients were Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela. It's awarded only to national heroes and it was voted two months ago, by Congress, to Miss Rosa Parks as "a living icon for freedom in America".
Well let us, to use the Victorian novelists' fancy phrase, turn back the pages of history to see how and when and why this old black lady - now 86 - earned this singular honour.
The pages of any history of America, that I might have recorded, lie - as you might imagine - in the files of a newspaper reporter. And if I were a more orderly man than you are, Gunga Din, I would keep files but I don't.
However, by the grace of my long gone editor, the cagey, spikey-haired little Alfred Wadsworth, there is on my shelves a little pamphlet, brown-edged with age.
It's some daily dispatches of mine which he thought worth reprinting. And they were written in the south, from the south, at various towns in the spring of 1956 - two years after the Supreme Court abolished the segregation of the races, one year after a bus boycott in the capital city of Alabama, Montgomery. If you don't already know the facts of that famous boycott they're simply told.
On a December day in 1955 four blacks went aboard a city bus and sat where they'd never sat before in the forward section reserved always for whites. The bus driver, following the city law, asked them to move to the back. And the three men complied. The fourth, a woman, refused.
A firm, upright little woman of 42 was asked again, and once more she said no. If the bus driver had decided to make nothing of it and let her stay he could have been prosecuted for flouting the city law and the company would lose its licence. This was well understood on both sides.
The bus driver called two policemen and, still refusing to budge, she was arrested - she was taken off, charged and released.
I put this down just as flatly as that in my piece. I didn't even print her name. It was, of course, Rosa Parks. And the legend has grown and shone and blazed of one coloured woman who took it on herself, on a whim, to stand out at last against the separation of blacks and whites on a southern bus.
And so down the years the fame of Rosa Parks has grown and her courage has been burnished with each new telling.
In that original piece and right after that humdrum recital of the facts I find this sentence: "That same afternoon thousands of printed handbills mysteriously dropped on the door steps of the coloured homes in the neighbourhood urging a boycott of the bus line, to begin to start in two days, at an appointed time."
And then it went on for over a year and the blacks got more reforms against the ills to which they had protested and sued against. In shorter words, Miss Rosa Parks' decision to stay in a forward seat in the bus was the first move in a planned boycott of the bus company and the city law - a campaign that had been organised long before by the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - which was being run by a young, bland, handsome black parson, name of Martin Luther King, who while I was in Montgomery flew in and out from Atlanta twice a week to buy little vans and station wagons for the use of the boycotters.
We could leave it there, having made the seemingly mean point that Miss Rosa Parks just happened to be chosen as the cat's paw or dupe of a boycott campaign well planned beforehand.
Well it's not so. Miss Parks was not chosen arbitrarily. She did the choosing.
She was not just another bus rider, she was the secretary of a city chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People 12 years before she stood - or sat - her ground in 1955.
The first time she was thrown off a bus was for using the white entrance - the front of the bus. That takes us back to 1943 - the middle of the Second World War, in which her brother had served with honour, both in Europe and in the Pacific.
He came home unhurt but she watched in disgust, helpless disgust, to see her brother in uniform picked out by rednecks or white trash for specially bigoted treatment.
From that time on she was a prominent civil rights activist. Now this is all, remember, 10, more, years before the Supreme Court's ruling abolishing integration in May 1954. All was given, and rightly, as the Bastille Day - the day that started the revolution for equal black rights.
Well back in 1945-6 once the War was over Miss Parks, among other audacities, tried to register to vote in an election, just like any other citizen. She tried three times. And some discrepancy in her residential record, or something, had her turned away.
From long practice the returns officers - as you'd call them - of southern election districts were experts at finding some sort of discrepancy in any black person's qualification to vote especially in those states in the Deep South where blacks were a majority of the population.
Miss Parks, soon after the War, began to draw up a record of cases of actual violence against her fellow blacks in the State of Georgia. And here's an interesting oddity, she became chief advisor to the Youth Council of the NAACP on how to, as she put it, "maintain one's dignity before situations of insufferable insult, cruelty, contempt".
I can't conceive now, looking back on it, how any black person would have the gall, the simple courage, ever to do anything but walk away as fast as possible from the jeers and insults of street corner rednecks.
That's what all the most sensible blacks, young and old, did. So you didn't see much of the beatings and the home burnings and the violence. It was done mostly in quiet, private places and after dark.
I recall the first time I ever saw a sign, fairly prevalent throughout the south in those days. A college friend of mine I was staying with in Baltimore drove me one day, not too far out, into the beautiful Maryland countryside. And remember Maryland is not a southern state, it's what they call a border state but many of its customs and conventions, both generous and bigoted, bordered on southern mores.
At the intersection of two narrow country roads a crude wooden sign was stuck in a hedge. It had painted on it a device, a warning. It said: "Nigger, don't let the sun set on you here."
That's how far away we are today from the culture of so-called separate but equal rights - the doctrine that the Supreme Court overthrew in 1954.
Well only a couple of months before Rosa Parks chose to be the cat's paw on that bus she heard the sickening news, which sickened the country, of a black teenage boy from Chicago who'd been murdered just for being found, a northerner, walking through a town in Mississippi.
The white men who killed him on a lark were acquitted by an all-white jury in Mississippi.
Rosa Parks, the now 86-year-old lady so belatedly honoured, now recalls: "It was not that I was just fed up in December 1955, I'd been fed up my whole life as far back as I can remember with being treated as less than a free person."
So she stayed put on that bus, knowing there'd be unpleasant treatment, nasty telephone calls. She didn't know that she and her husband would receive death threats for another 12 years, which eventually forced them to move up north to the middle west, to Detroit.
It wasn't the end of her activism. She joined in the 1963 march on Washington. She was on the frightening but now famous march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery. Montgomery, the city of her notoriety and her persecution and - now that they're building a Rosa Parks Museum - the city of her glory.
So after all Rosa Parks was no accidental heroine. For her, December 1955 was not the start of anything, it was the end of her rope, the last straw of her tolerance, of harassment and shaming and white beastliness.
That gold medal and that resolution of Congress passed in April were little enough compensation for a lifetime's crime - of being black.
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