Until Rosa Parks took her stand by sitting down in a “white” seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, the singular image that defined the black struggle for me that year was negative: the pitiful sight of Emmett Till’s swollen and bloated body recovered from a Mississippi River after he had been lynched for daring to speak to a white woman in a way the mores of the white south deemed inappropriate. As I recalled in my book, “In My Place,” “The pictures of his limp, water-soaked body in the newspapers and in Jet, Black American’s weekly news bible, were worse than any image we had ever seen outside a horror movie.” I was 13 years old and it moved me and my generation to anger and sadness, but not to action.
But only a few months later, Rosa Parks gave us a different image—defiance that was dignified and determined. And it moved us to action—action that was immediate in Montgomery, and spread over time throughout the South. It planted in my generation the psychological seed we needed to break out of the protective cocoon of our segregated worlds, where our families—biological and extended—did everything within their limited powers to keep us out of harm’s way, echoing, for different reasons, the white mantra that we should “stay in our place.” Rosa Parks defined her place –as a first class human being—and planted the seeds that germinated in the souls of young people like myself. Within a few years, we would follow Sister/Mama Rosa, I, into a resistant, all- white University, my classmates and friends into the streets held by Atlanta’s white powers—defying their intransigence singing that old spiritual: “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me’roun.” As we, each in our own ways, challenged the system that made us second class citizens, we came to “see…in a new light both our past and our future. We could see that past—the segregation, the deprivation and denial—for what it was, a system designed to keep us in our place and convince us somehow that it was our fault, as well as our destiny. Now, without either ambivalence or shame, we saw ourselves as the heirs to a legacy of struggle…ennobling…[and] enabling us to take control of our destiny.”
Martin Luther King had taught us that, and he had learned from Rosa Parks. When the news of Rosa Parks’ death reached me in Johannesburg, where I live and work, I called in to a popular radio talk show to pay my respects, sharing with my South African brothers and sisters the impact she had on me and my generation, and which also had resonance in the South African struggle, where the persistent acts of bravery of ordinary people, in time, ended a system of white oppression every bit as virulent as that which Rosa Parks challenged. And I recalled the line from the freedom song born out of the defiance of women like her here in South Africa who put their bodies on the line, in the same year as Rosa, protesting the apartheid pass laws restricting black movement within the country. ‘Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo, uzokufa’,” they sang defiantly: ‘Now you have touched the women you have struck a rock, you have dislodged a boulder, you will be crushed’.
Many have described Rosa Parks as “larger than life,” but that misses the point. The otherwise diminutive Rosa Parks was the size of all of us, and that is the key to understanding her awesome legacy. Armed only with the weapon of moral authority, Rosa Parks taught us that human dignity is not a gift but a God-given right and that each of us—no matter our station in life or the size of our bodies—has the power within ourselves to demand that that right be honored and respected. It is a living legacy that I am committed to honor by helping to pass it on.
Johannesburg, South Africa
November 2, 2005
Ms. Hunter-Gault’s next book, New News Out of Africa, is due out in April 2006.