I was listening to the news of the memorial service of Rosa Parks last week. It was a momentous occasion, the laying to rest of a huge icon of the civil rights movement. Among the speakers at this memorial service was Rev. Al Sharpton, a man with whose views I often disagree with. I imagined some bland well-wishing for Rosa and her family, some trite tribute to the legacy she left behind, much as the words of other “dignitaries” had attempted to encompass something greater that they could not grasp a hold of. The reverend is a man I do not agree with much, yet this time my ears perked up in happy disbelief. He was issuing a challenge to the audience, a challenge to take up Rosa Park’s work and carry it onwards. Insulting at times, he called the African-American community ungrateful for the sacrifices that Rosa and others made for them in order to bring them the equal right to vote, end segregation, and start the long road to equality in this country. With vivid detail he portrayed the suffering of the civil rights protestors, and opined that Rosa would be ashamed of them now, to see how they had to be begged, entreated to vote, when once dogs and pitchforks could not stand in their way to their civil privilege. Afterwards, National Public Radio asked Sharpton about his comments. He said, “Saluting her would be a huge mistake. Rosa Parks actively pursued social justice, and never stopped challenging us and never stopped challenging the issues of justice, and I think she would have been absolutely been dishonored and displeased if she thought that all we did was make great memorials to her, and not challenge people to do what she did.”
That struck me as remarkable. Especially his words on voting, and the apathy that Americans demonstrate towards their cherished, and hard-won gift. Not just African-Americans, as he was railing against, but Americans in general, have taken the opinion that voting is a bother, a bureaucracy, something not worthy of their time. This has long been a galling attitude in America. Not just Rosa Parks, but what would George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin, all those great leaders in history who had the foresight to see what a great thing this representative democracy could be, and the strength to fight over all odds to see that it came to fruition, say when they saw that the best we could do is mid 40s in voter turnout? I think they’d roll over in their grave and wish they had stayed with ole’ Georgie across the pond.
It is absolutely disgusting how low Americans hold their gift, their rights, their responsibility in this country. They have the power, whether they realize it or not, to challenge any laws, change anything they desire about this country in which they live. But they squander it, they throw it away, they ignore it, and in doing so open up a deluge of problems that we can only imagine. [all those horrors that are slowly materializing before us constitute other pages, yet to be written] Democracy, true democracy, was once an ideal worth fighting for, worth laying down your life so your fellow citizens could enjoy the right to elect who they wanted to lead them, to vote up and down measures that affected them in every walk of life. Now we can’t even get them to walk 2 blocks and push a screen or punch out a chad. Disgusting. When I see the pictures of new elections in other parts of the world, like Africa, and people stand in the savanna for hours waiting to vote, even knowing they can’t read, knowing that it is probably corrupt and the results fixed weeks or months before the ballots were printed, I can’t help but get a sense of pride. THAT is the democratic ideal right there, and those are people who are devoted enough and wanting it so badly that they will go to all lengths to claim their hard-won right to vote. Americans should take note.
How does a country re-ignite the citizen’s fire that used to burn so brightly? What will it take for people to appreciate the rare and wonderful gift they have been given with over two centuries of hard-won freedoms? You could take an extreme viewpoint, and say that to appreciate it, you need to take it away. A spate living under Stalinist Russia, Hussein’s Iraq, or the Catholic Inquisition would give you a good viewpoint from which to enjoy all that we take for granted. Indeed, if we do not stand up and take notice of this lapse in our responsibility to the government that was, at one point, at our whim, we might very well find ourselves residing in one of those despotic realms. And it would be no fault other than our own. I, for one, do not want to see that come to pass in this nation.
So, on this day of mourning, which inevitably leads to introspection and questioning, let us not memorialize, not pontificate over the life of a truly remarkable woman. Instead, let her funeral be a time of renewal to the phoenix of our representative government. Let’s resolve to be better citizens.