Remembering Rosa Parks

I woke up this morning to the news that Rosa Parks had died yesterday. She had lived a long, full life and had contributed to the struggle for human dignity, for freedom and justice more than most of us can even imagine doing. Nearly 50 years ago she took one seemingly small step that set off a campaign that shook the south and sent repercussions throughout the nation and around the world. Her refusal to go to the back of the bus was not, as some would tell the tale, because she was physically tired. No, on that day in Montgomery, Alabama Rosa Parks took an action that reflected just how sick and tired she and a whole generation was of being treated like second class citizens.

When Rosa Parks sat in the front of that segregated bus, refusing to give up her seat for a white man, she sent a clear statement about the power of one, the importance of individual action. But her action grew out of a social context and an emerging movement. Right from the beginning, her action was part of something bigger than herself, and the strength of her seemingly singular action was that it was tied to a community and part of a movement. When we recall the bravery of this one woman we must also remember the power of collective action.

Today, I came to work thinking about Rosa Parks and how much we owe her. It is profoundly true that we stand on the shoulders of those who struggled before us, those who chartered new paths and opened up new opportunities.

By the time I was at my desk, I knew it would be impossible to stay with Rosa Parks today. Instead, my attention was quickly moving to the almost surreal death count…would today be the day that we heard of the 2,000 death of a U.S. serviceperson in Iraq? Would today be the day we needed to put out our call and urge tens of thousands of people in every corner of the country to make their opposition to this horrible war as vocal and visible as possible? And yes, by early afternoon the news came through. This war that never should have happened, this war based on lies, this war that has already taken thousands of innocent Iraqi lives – perhaps more than 100,000 lives – is raging every single day.

Today the news came about the 2,000th U.S. serviceperson. It is strange to use this as a marker and not, at first, even know the person’s name. And no, of course, their life was no more important or precious than the previous 1,999 people from this country who have died, nor more important or precious than any of the Iraqis who have been killed in the daily carnage brought by our government to their nation. And yet it makes sense to mark this date, this death. It makes sense to use it (if I might even think in those terms) as a rallying cry, as a moment to mobilize people. The reality is stark and we simply must use every tool we have available if we are going to become a force that is actually strong enough to stop this war.

All of this – Rosa Parks, the 2000th U.S. death – on the very same day that also happens to be the third anniversary of the founding of United for Peace and Justice. Just 3 years ago about a dozen of us convened a meeting with representatives of 55 organizations to see if it made sense to form a new coalition that would hopefully tap into the antiwar sentiment already expressing itself throughout the country, and a coalition that would offer a vehicle for many groups to work cooperatively and thereby strengthen all of our efforts.

On October 25, 2002 we did not know if this new coalition would work: would other groups join us, would we be able to make a meaningful contribution to the efforts to prevent a U.S. war against Iraq, would we last beyond our initial plans for work? We did last and we have grown. Now, with about 1,300 member groups from every state, we are the largest peace and justice coalition in the nation. We are unique in our ability to maintain a coalition that includes national organizations and community groups, organizations that have been around for decades and groups that have just formed, groups that work against the war on Iraq as their only issue and organizations that have a multi-issue agenda.

In our brief 3 years we have done a great deal of work, and there is much we can feel good about. We’ve organized some of the largest mobilization’s in this nation’s history, let alone in this period. We have helped to re-energize public protest, sometimes having to fight for the very right to gather in large numbers in public spaces. Our coalition has helped hundreds of local groups organize, do educational work, mobilize in their own communities. We have built bridges with other social and economic justice movements, lending support when possible and encouraging their involvement in the antiwar movement. We believe our collective work has helped change public opinion in this country, to the point where now in poll after poll it is clear that most of the people want an end to this war.

But for all that has been done, we know full well that our work is far from finished. The war in Iraq is far from over, unfortunately, probably very far from over. And the Bush administration, even with record setting low ratings and publicly embarrassing situations constantly emerging, continues its saber rattling. Who knows what plans they have for Syria or Iran or Venezuela or Cuba or North Korea? It’s all too clear what their plans are for our own country – just look at how they handled the crisis in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

And as this rainy, dreary day comes to a close in New York City, I once again think about Rosa Parks and how much our country has lost with her death. Tonight I will go home with a heavy heart as I think about the senseless nightmare of death and destruction in Iraq and knowing how hard our struggle really is. But I also will go home knowing that too many lives have been taken, too many lives ruined for us to give up or give anything less then every ounce of our energies. Tomorrow they say the sun will come out again in New York, tomorrow always offers the possibilities we long for. Let us learn from our own histories, take stock of the present realities and prepare for what will certainly be a hard road ahead. Let us do all we can to ensure that, in the end, peace prevails and justice triumphs.

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