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“My Lord What a Morning”

On the anniversary of the trial of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, the author recalls the significance in her own family of that day when tens of thousands read leaflets asking that they “stay off the buses” in protest—and the limits to freedom that still plague us today.

Recently, along with my grandmother’s passport, I discovered her American naturalization papers and a citizenship book in which family and friends signed congratulations on December 5, 1955. As Grandma went to federal court in New York to become a citizen, Rosa Parks was in court in Alabama for violating segregation’s rule.

My Lord, what a morning! A morning as cataclysmic as the eclipse enslaved composers documented in the spirituals, their tablets of song: that day “when the stars began to fall.” Their day of reckoning foretold would come with the Civil War and slavery’s end.

In 1955, another day of reckoning was on the horizon. Just as slaveowners ignored the signs, preferring shooting bullets to shooting stars, southern segregationists and their northern sympathizers ignored Rosa Parks’ quiet resistance. From her the Civil Rights movement was born—so too the women’s liberation movement, the gay rights movement, the peace movement, and even the Gray Panthers of the 1960s when “freedom” was all the rage and refrain.

In Montgomery, Rose Parks was found guilty of disorderly conduct and violating a local ordinance, fined ten dollars plus four more for court costs—a conviction she appealed in the courts and millions took to the streets.

In New York, Grandma (Myra Landsmark, a Caribbean-American) pledged allegiance to a flag promising her freedoms in fact denied both women north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line. With Grandma’s pledge, her daughters enlisted their eight-year-old children, my cousin and me, as footsoldiers in the battle for school desegregation.

In Montgomery, the Civil Rights Movement catapulted a young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and America’s shame, race, onto the world stage.

In New York, I was entering my previously all-white public school when an adult raged at my trespassing what I saw as school and she claimed as turf. She spat at me and tore my dress. I spent the entire day in school like that—ripped apart, inside and out. “What happened to you was mean and wrong,” my parents consoled that night. The four of us—a battalion of eight- and nine-year-olds—were “brave children,” they cooed. “We’re so proud of you. What you’re doing is good for the race; just like Rosa Parks.”

She was my hero. Months into the boycott no one knew if it would succeed. But, sitting down like Rosa Parks meant standing up to those who were “mean and wrong” and that was something I wanted to do. The next day at school, I again faced a gauntlet of white hate but I walked it in the footsteps of Rosa Parks.

As an adult, the thought has since come to me: Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. Why did he want her seat?

“All things are one,” my grandma would say. Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Grandma in New York, the Civil Rights movement nationwide, the revolt of “darker peoples” against the multi-headed monster of colonialism, imperialism, segregation, and apartheid. From my own view of history as current events, I’ve come to understand all such things as one.

It was never about race—or male vs. female, gay vs. straight, abortion yea vs. nay. It’s always been about power.

Some will say it’s also about freedom. But, freedom for who to do what?

A few years ago, set to drive from Detroit home to New York, I realized to my delight that my hotel room overlooked Windsor, Canada; and, to my chagrin in this Post-9/11 era, that I hadn’t brought my passport with me. No worry, the concierge consoled.

But, what would happen when I tried to re-enter the United States? “No problem,” she smiled confidently. “Canadians come to work here in the morning, then go back home. Detroiters work there and do the same. This goes on all day everyday.”

With that and mild trepidation, I drove up to the customs booth. The guard asked if I was an American citizen. I said yes. He waved me through. “Do I need anything special to come back on the other side?” “A map,” he smiled, waving me on. I waved back and had a lovely uneventful drive across Canada and back into the States.

Not so a trip across the American southwest via Mexico. Why are we free to enter from the north and not the south?

Nineteen members of Al Qaeda attacked the United States and suddenly everyone south of the border is a threat to our national security. We equate “illegals” with “Mexicans” (be they from Mexico, Nicaragua or Peru) and “terror” when the only “terrorist” charged entered at the Canadian border.

Crudely, albeit accurately put, the darker you are the less “desirable” you are under U.S. immigration law. Infamously amended in 1924 by politicians openly belonging or sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan, race has been the driver behind our immigration policy.

Race divides the “desirable” from the “illegal.” The hatred once openly perpetrated against African Americans—the lynchings and bombings and other such homegrown terrorist attacks—is now the assault on “illegal immigrants.” Days into our newly “post-racial” world dawned with the election of Barack Obama as president, brutal attacks on “Mexicans” were reported; one such attack in New York resulted in death.

The thing is this: all things are one.

Immigration and segregation, attacks on gays, incivility toward women candidates; news clips of soldiers off the “kill the sand niggers” of Iraq; all these are one. It’s all about power: who has it and who doesn’t; what it means and what we choose to do with it.

In these troubled times we have a decision to make. Will power be about whose seat we can take or how many seats we can provide?

Will it be about wielding power or can we muster the bravery of an eight-year-old to follow in the footsteps of Rosa Parks—a woman who empowered millions with her “conviction,” her courage, and her grace?

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