- The Washington Times - Friday, October 28, 2005

Every semester, I look forward to my Catholic University journalism students’ moans and groans about writing obituaries. More accurately, I look forward to reading about the fictional lives I have encouraged them “to dream big” about as they write their own.

“Obituaries are not about death; they’re about life, and life is in the dashes,” I say, “so make sure you don’t kill yourself too soon, or you won’t have anything significant to put in your dash.”

It’s uncanny that someone significant “passes” (a euphemism I tell them not to use) at the moment my budding reporters are ready to write obituaries. To illustrate my point, I draw a crude circle around the dash that sets apart the deceased VIP’s date of birth and date of death.

This week, Rosa Lee Parks, the 92-year-old “mother of the civil rights movement” who died Monday in Detroit after a long illness, obliged my obituary lecture with an overwhelming historic dash.

Hers was a heroic life lived fully between the dashes, and without a lot of flash and sass before and after Dec. 1, 1955, that defining moment when she was 42 years old.

More than anything, Mrs. Parks’ life teaches us that a single, lonely, quiet and courageous act of a “tired” individual has the unimaginable power to fashion a world of big dreams for millions.

Every American living today has the opportunity to create a dash-worthy life because this small, strong seamstress stitched whole cloth from a tattered nation simply because she refused to accept scraps any longer.

Mrs. Parks was not “physically tired” on the day her defiance sparked the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott that eventually led to the federal Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations. In her biography, she said, “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

Would that more of us were so tired of “giving in” to what we’re told is intractable today. Would the Voting Rights Act, for example, be in jeopardy of renewal? Congress is expected to pass extraordinary resolutions allowing Mrs. Parks’ coffin to lie in repose in the Capitol Rotunda on Sunday. This American icon deserves our utmost homage.

For her pivotal role in breaching the racial divide alone, we owe Mrs. Parks more than the belated memorials and monuments we can bestow. It is most fitting that a person of her historic significance rises to such high national stature because her personal protest embodies the American ideal of equality and freedom for all.

A hard-fought freedom, it is sad to admit, which is not appreciated or respected by all, and protected by even fewer.

Look around. Where are the Rosa Parks of this polarized nation now? Who dares to have the courage and dignity to stare injustice, intolerance and incompetence in the face and call it out, regardless of personal consequences? Too often those who attempt to protest are publicly pilloried, especially in the cable network square.

The lack of courageous coverage, amid the national turmoil when style often trumps substance, is also sorely missed.

Remember, as I lecture my students, had it not been for the network television cameras and the Southern newspapers that were brave enough to broadcast and publish the telling photographs of petite, pretty, ladylike Rosa Parks being fingerprinted for failing to relinquish her bus seat to a white man after a long, hard day’s labor, no telling how much longer it might have taken to capture the nation’s conscience about the mistreatment of blacks in the Jim Crow South.

Keep in mind that Rosa Parks was not the first black person to challenge segregation laws or be arrested breaking them. Nor was she a stranger to the civil rights movement, which had just won a major victory with the landmark Supreme Court school desegregation case.

But her solitary act of defiance catapulted the civil rights movement into the living rooms of America, and our country has been better for it. Now, we must continue the freedom fight before the heroic work of Mrs. Parks and the countless, nameless warriors like her is further eroded.

We cannot afford to get tired yet as we watch the resegregation of our schools, our communities, our voting districts. We cannot afford to be content in our comfortable cocoons while our economic and political rights are being defined by others. We must never confuse consumer rights with civil rights.

Look around. Who is willing to make the personal sacrifices like Rosa Parks made for the rights of all people?

Lawrence Guyot, a D.C. activist and chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, met Mrs. Parks at the Highlander Folk Center where they were trained in civil disobedience and political empowerment in the early 1960s.

“The beauty of [Rosa Parks’] life was the example she set by not considering the odds, by not considering how safe it was, by not considering how socially acceptable it was. She took the risk to get involved,” Mr. Guyot said.

“If we but follow that example, we would be doing the best thing possible to honor her name. She taught us that the most powerful thing, the most loving thing, the most religious thing we can do is to free ourselves and to free others.”

Exactly. My earnest charge to you, to my students, and most especially to myself, is to think of the life of Rosa Parks, and commit to a courageous act worthy of a prominent place in your dash when, inevitably, a newspaper reporter is actually assigned to write your obituary.

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