For the week of November 4, 2005
Posted on November 4, 2005
Last week, in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol and all over the country, America honored the memory of Rosa Parks, a woman whose quiet stand for her individual rights reverberated across this nation. We often discuss how far we have to go as a country in terms of race relations, and we surely do. But thinking of Rosa Parks reminds me how far we have come. I was a student in the South in the 1950s. In those years, when African American families drove through Tennessee, if they were sick, they could not be admitted to many of the hospitals. If they needed a place to sleep, they could not be admitted to many of the motels. If they needed a place to eat, they could not go to many of the restaurants. That was the life then. That was not that long ago. Many families throughout the South, as well as other parts of the country, lived in fear because of that climate. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the Montgomery bus that day in 1955, she helped spark a civil rights movement that changed our country forever for the better. Her courage has earned for her a noble place in the history of our nation's struggle for equal opportunity. Condoleezza Rice, one of the bright minds leading our country today, rightly noted at the memorial service in Alabama, “... that without Mrs. Parks, I would not be standing here today as secretary of state.” Rosa Parks and those who took up the call inspired me, too. As editor of the student paper at Vanderbilt University, I wrote editorials urging desegregation of that school in 1962. In that same year, the judge on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans for whom I worked a few years later, Judge John Minor Wisdom, ordered Ole Miss to admit James Meredith. Around the same time, Congressman John Lewis, then a student at Fisk University, organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville. We made great progress in those days, as we continue to do today. I remember a teacher at the Benjamin Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis telling me one time, “America is a work in progress.” Our nation has always been a work in progress, ever since our Founders signed the Declaration of Independence declaring that “all men are created equal.” Our history is one of striving to reach this lofty ideal. The treatment of African Americans is one of our most egregious failures. Slavery, lynching, and segregation are all examples of times when this nation failed African Americans, and we failed to live up to our own promise of that fundamental truth that all men are created equal. However, for every time that we have failed, we have struggled to come to terms with the disappointment of that failure and recommitted ourselves to trying again. Where there once was slavery, we passed the 13th and 14th Amendments abolishing slavery and declaring equal protection under the law for all races. Where there once was segregation, came Brown v. Board of Education, the Voting Rights Act, and a heroic stand by a woman named Rosa Parks.