More than 50 years ago, when Rosa Parks sat in the "Whites Only" section of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., she began a revolution which continues to this day. Whether she was tired after a day of working as a seamstress, or just fed up and tired about being considered less than a human being, she became the catalyst for the modern civil rights movement. In the years that followed her quiet defiance of apartheid in the South, we learned, thanks to the media, that while discrimination was the official rule below the Mason-Dixon Line, it was no less onerous for being "unofficial" above that boundary. It took years of marching, dying and vicious attacks against peaceful civil rights groups and individuals for Americans to wake up to the inhumanity against blacks in our original Constitution and to the continuing virulence against them in our society. It remained for a Southerner, Lyndon B. Johnson, to articulate to the nation the need to begin to right some of the wrongs against blacks in our society. And, he did it with conviction and an eloquence rarely heard today. On March 15, 1965, a decade after Rosa Park defied apartheid, President Johnson spoke before the full Congress. The speech came a week after deadly racial violence erupted in Selma, Ala., as blacks were attacked by police while preparing to march to Montgomery to protest voting rights discrimination. Only blacks in Alabama were subjected to literacy, knowledge or character tests. You can get the speech off the Internet, but print cannot evoke the power and the dignity and strength of what President Johnson said. My wife, Elaine, and I listened to the president that night in our home in Briarwood. These excerpts are but a small, selected attempt to indicate what I believe to have been one of the greatest speeches I have heard--and I have heard many: "...rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself....The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth, and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation." "There is no moral issue. It is wrong--deadly wrong--to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country." "...it's not just Negroes, but really all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice." "...Negroes are not the only victims. How many white children have gone uneducated? How many white families have lived in stark poverty? How many white lives have been scarred by fear, because we wasted energy and our substance to maintain the barriers of hatred and terror?" "These are our enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are our enemies, not our fellow man, not our neighbor." "Equality depends, not on the force of arms or tear gas, but depends on the force of moral right--not on the recourse to violence, but on respect for law and order." "We seek order, we seek unity, but we will not accept the peace of stifled rights or the order imposed by fear, or the unity that stifles protest-for peace cannot be purchased at the cost of liberty." "...people cannot contribute to the nation if they are never taught to read or write; if their bodies are stunted from hunger; if their life is spent in hopeless poverty." "Above the pyramid of the Great Seal of the United States it says in Latin, 'God has favored our undertaking.' God will not favor everything we do. It is rather our duty to divine His will. But I cannot help but believe that He truly understands and He really favors the undertaking that we begin here tonight." On August 6, 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. But, even today, there are attempts in some states in the South to make it difficult if not impossible for blacks to vote. Fifty years later, we honored Rosa Parks in many ways. Her body lay in Rotunda of the Capitol, just the 31st person since 1852, a list that includes Abraham Lincoln and nine other presidents. A statue of her will be placed in the Capitol's Statuary Hall. On Dec. 1, buses in our city and county and in many other places had a picture of her on the seat behind the driver, reminding us that "It All Started on a Bus." Freedom is a never-ending process. In December, five men who had attacked two Sikhs in Richmond Hill, for no other reason than the turbans they were wearing, were sentenced to jail terms ranging from 20 days to two years. Three of them were ordered to perform community service with the Sikh coalition, an advocacy organization. Some good may come out of evil. The Sikh who suffered fractures to his nose and left eye, said at the sentencing, "We should live together like birds living in a tree." Amen to that. The night before his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr., said: "I just want to do God's will, and He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land." But, we look around today, 50 years after Rosa Parks, and we realize, as this newspaper's editorial of Nov. 3 noted, that for the black population "until the problems of crime, drug abuse, educational failure and family breakdown are addressed," far too many of our citizens will continue to sit in the back of the bus. (Note: "Slavery in New York," the exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, Central Park West and 77th Street, has been extended through March 26. For times, call (212) 873-3400.)
©2006 Community News Group
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