By Lee A. Daniels
Director of Publications
National Urban League
The more I watched this week's CBS Sunday Night movie, "The Rosa Parks Story," which sketched the heroic story of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the more uncomfortable I became.
For one thing, watching the film brought back the bitter fury I felt as an adolescent in the early 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement exploded across the American landscape and revealed how deep injustice in America went. That fury remained within me even as it was disciplined by the commitment to nonviolence the Movement required.
But Sunday night, even as I again successfully got that old fury about America's racial past under control, I was also reminded by the movie's spare, subtle presentation of the story's larger dimensions.
This film, with riveting performances by Angela Bassett and Peter Francis James as Rosa and Raymond Parks, powerfully conveyed the determination of the ordinary, everyday people who made up the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to work to "disturb the peace."
That is, they were determined to disturb the unjust peace of state-sanctioned segregation. They had been working at it in Montgomery, "the Cradle of the Confederacy," as others had elsewhere across the South (and the North, for that matter), for decades, aided by a few, equally courageous whites like Clifford and Virginia Durr.
This was one of the most powerful lessons of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole-that individuals could band together to confront bigotry and, against heavy odds, create change.
Another lesson the Movement confirmed for me as a youngster who was then grappling with "lily-white" history textbooks in school was that heroism was not the exclusive province of white people, nor of "great leaders," and it showed me that young people, teenagers as well as college students, had an obligation to be involved in this challenge.
It was also clear that the Movement had very high standards for membership. You had to be mentally tough, and disciplined, and intellectually sharp. You had to have faith in its ultimate success—and you had to be willing to sacrifice your own position for the good of those who were to come after you.
That one's involvement might bring a severe cost was clear.
But the Movement underscored that The Struggle had to be faced, and that you had to figure out what your part was and do it. The costs of continued silence and inaction were too great to bear.
The steadfast, rock-hard quality of that determination among ordinary people was fully evident in the film's central scene: when Rosa Parks, a seamstress tried of decades of a malevolent injustice, refused the bus driver's order to give her seat to a white man.
Did you notice the bus driver was wearing a revolver? Did you notice that four police officers responded to his call for help? This was America a decade after "the greatest generation" fought a war to make the world safe for democracy. This was America when its president was the greatest American hero of that war.
Rosa Parks' action was the spark that not only the civil rights leadership had been waiting for. More important, it was the spark ordinary blacks had been waiting for: As the film showed, calls for a mass meeting and talk of a bus boycott spread among ordinary blacks while the local NAACP leadership was still trying to get Parks out of jail.
Some undoubtedly will find it comforting to classify the story of Rosa Parks as just a history lesson, whose contemplation is to be confined to Black History Month, and then shelved.
But we'd all do well to remember that after the victory of the Montgomery Bus Boycott the Civil Rights Movement faced another full violent decade of struggle before the overt legal supports for racial bigotry in America were destroyed.
So, another lesson of the film is that even as we celebrate the progress that movement brought about, we ought to be haunted by the question: Why did it take so long?
Finally, we need only consider the world's present circumstance to understand that bigotry in all its forms remains a powerful and horrible motive in human affairs, among individuals and groups and nation-states alike. Compare these realities of our life now to the progress "The Story of Rosa Parks" foreshadows-and you'll see how much work we all have left to do.
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