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Rosa Parks: Civil rights pioneer died Monday at age 92
Rosa Parks: Civil rights pioneer died Monday at age 92

Rosa Parks' loud voice came in seated silence

In a world where noise is often confused with strength, where brashness looks like power, Rosa Parks is a monument to the authority that comes with quiet humility.

Mrs. Parks, 92, left us Monday. The tired feet that trampled a culture of hate are tired no more.

In 1955, Mrs. Parks did not reshape our state and nation by standing up for what she believed. She did so by sitting down. Her weary heroism set the harmony for a movement that prevailed not with muscle and outrage but with passive resistance.

To be sure, there was a melody. It was a powerful melody sung by the young pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But that melody, which organized a 381-day boycott of Montgomery buses, never strayed from the humble harmony sung by Mrs. Parks in her quiet refusal to relinquish her seat to a white man.

The 42-year-old lady sparked the anger of Alabama blacks, but that was an accomplishment of little note. The anger was already there. They were an oppressed people and knew it. Like the oppressed before and since, they understood the effectiveness of violence. Revolt was in the air.

Violence, however, divides. It nurtures fear, an emotion that converts pity to hate.

Mrs. Parks' seated rebellion did what violence could not. It demanded that her oppressor look inward. Her silence spoke to whites and, ultimately, galvanized them. She held a mirror that forced the oppressor to see himself. He did not like what he saw.

Within the harmony and melody played out in Montgomery was respect and optimism. Mrs. Parks, sitting, and the Rev. King, standing, saw in whites a force that hid from casual inspection. They saw in whites a God-given capacity for guilt. They saw a kernel of love — darkened by generations of abusive power, but love nonetheless — that could transform.

Rosa Parks had every reason to hate. She was a victim of hatred. Sitting in that bus, however, she changed the rules. She wrote a harmony, complemented with the Rev. King's melody, that confronted hate with love.

While whites tried to convince themselves that God's goodness had exhausted itself before anointing blacks, the song that issued from Mrs. Parks and the Rev. King was one of quiet assurance. God's goodness, they knew, existed in the ugliest of their oppressors.

The tired seamstress and energetic preacher understood their task. That task was not to obliterate the evil but to foster the good. They recognized that the smallest kernel of God's righteousness could transform oppressors into friends. Violence could only force that kernel deeper.

So Mrs. Parks sat, as did the blacks who refused to leave their seats in a Woolworth's cafe. The throngs of blacks crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge lay themselves down in the path of violence and hatred.

Mrs. Parks' weary refusal to leave her seat on a Montgomery bus was not the first time she confronted hate with love. Nor was it the last. In 1994, a thief attacked Mrs. Parks. Asked about the incident two years later, she again expressed her assurance that God's beauty resides in the ugly.

"I pray for this young man," she said, "and the conditions in our country that have made him this way. Despite the violence and crime in our society, we should not let fear overwhelm us. We must remain strong."

Mrs. Parks did not define the "we" in that statement as blacks. In 1955 and in 1996 and, no doubt, on Monday, "we" referred to all of God's children. For all of us, oppressor and oppressed alike, carry a kernel of God's goodness. Hidden deep, maybe, but it is there. Mrs. Parks understood that, as did the Rev. King.

Mrs. Parks did not stand in anger, she sat in love. Fear divides and love unites. That message transformed our state and our nation. If we remember that message, it will continue to unite us. We must trump violence with love.

We owe it to a tired seamstress to try.

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