At the U.S. Capital building yesterday, over 30,000 people paid their respects to Rosa Parks, and another 2,500 packed a D.C. church for her memorial service. The Washington Post has a moving story about the services - go read it. Please.
As I thought about Mrs. Parks life, I was grateful for two ways that she had helped me, beyond the obvious way that she helped all of us, even white people, especially white people, live in a more just society. The first came when I was reading her obituary last week and I realized that she was the same age I am now when she refused to give up her seat on the bus in 1955.
Mrs. Parks' refusal to give up her seat was not spontaneous, and prior to that day, she had extensive training in non-violent protest. The early civil rights workers knew they had to strongly govern themselves so as not to rise to the inevitable provocations and cruelty they would receive. In the commonly told version of the story of that day in Birmingham, she was just too tired to get up. In Mrs. Parks own version of her story, however, she said, "...the only tired I was, was tired of giving in". (This obituary in the LA Times is beautiful, too. Please go read it I'll wait.)
I was helped by both parts of what Mrs. Parks did, by her refusal to give in and by her willingness to reign herself in. I've now lived long enough to know, like Mrs. Parks, that things don't get better unless someone speaks up and acts. I've also lived long enough to know that real change is never easy. Mrs. Parks reached the point where she knew she had to chose between resignation and action, and I struggle with the choice between engagement and anger, cynicism and withdrawal. I can only hope that I can find a fraction of her courage and learn how to be "...tired of giving in".
I am also helped by Mrs. Parks' commitment to her non-violent training. She could have made her protest years earlier, but, by her own admission, she wasn't ready. It was only after her training, and only after she felt she could reign in her own temperament (she had been, she said, a "feisty" girl), that she was ready to refuse to give up her seat. My temperament and sensibilities make speaking out rather easy. What's wrong seems rather vivid to me, and I kind of like saying something about it. What's hard for me is making sure that when I say or do something, I'm compelled by the issue and led by the Spirit, and not merely by the habit of speaking out. Mrs. Parks' example gives me encouragement, but it also challenges me to make sure that I'm not just willing but ready to say or do something.
My greatest personal thanks is for the way Mrs. Parks helped my daughter. Katie has had bad luck with friends. There are many little girls who are kind, but in early elementary school Katie could not seem to meet them. Among our neighbors and her classmates, she seemed to always be the nice one among some not very nice kids, and this began to wear on her.
There is an odd tendency among school age girls that allows the least kind to set the tone for everyone else. When Katie was in third grade (she's a sixth grader,now), things were particularly bad in her circle of girls, but third grade was also when she first learned about Rosa Parks. She admired the way Mrs. Parks refused to be put down as a girl, and was especially taken by the line I quoted above, that she "...was tired of giving in".
Katie wrote a poem about Rosa Parks that won awards at her school and school district. It was really nice for her to be honored, but it pleased me more to see the courage she took from Mrs. Parks' example. We spoke about Mrs. Parks' death last week, and I quoted the line about her being "...tired of giving in". Katie reminded me that she had used that line in her poem. She went on to tell me how that line has continued to guide her and encourage her when she has found herself in tough situations. I was amazed, and thankful.
So, Mrs. Parks, thank you for your life, and your example. Well done.