Rosa Parks, RIP
I was only a child at the time of the Montgomery bus boycott. I didn’t know what it was, but I was old enough to read, and I remember seeing the word “boycott” in newspaper headlines and being puzzled by it. Obviously it had to do with boys, but beyond that I couldn’t make much sense of it. It seemed to be something serious—I may have picked that up from the adults. I think I had some inkling that it involved people refusing to ride buses, and was puzzled as to why there was anything wrong with that. I certainly would have been more than happy to give up riding the school bus.
Ten years or so later, as a teenager in the middle of the ‘60s when the civil rights movement achieved its greatest successes, of course I understood. Those who never knew the segregated south have difficulty understanding what a different world it was, and how much has changed. Of course it’s easy enough to understand the bald facts, and easy enough to appreciate how wrong the system of segregation was. What’s hard to understand is not so much the horror as the lack of horror: the degree to which a superficial peace prevailed, the apparent stability of things.
A typical Hollywood view of the period involves continual acts of intimidation and violence and an all-suffusing atmosphere of vicious meanness on the part of whites. But it wasn’t like that, at least not in my part of the South—I’ve heard that in other places the reality bore a greater resemblance to the mythology. What I saw was far more subtle. Acts of racial violence on the part of whites were rare: I never saw one or heard directly of one, or of a lynching occurring locally, or saw a Klansman in his regalia, but it doesn’t take many lynchings or beatings to make matters clear. And in personal interactions a certain courtesy, not intimidation, was the norm. For the most part it was only when the rules were broken—when the black man failed to keep to “his place”—that the underlying brutality showed itself.
In the Hollywood version of the South, Rosa Parks would have been instantly lynched when she defied white authority to its face. That she was not, and that her refusal to move to the back of the bus launched a mostly peaceful struggle, says much about the complexity of the situation. (This is not to imply that she did not act with great courage—Emmett Till was murdered later in that same year, 1955.) White people had a bad conscience, and an underlying sense of decency that made the moral force of the civil rights movement something they could only avoid by giving in to their worst passions, which most of them, most of the time, did not do.
It’s a cliché to call the 1950s “a more innocent time.” Far more innocent, in more ways, I think, were the early and middle ‘60s, when it seemed that removing legal segregation would be enough to allow the South and the whole nation to attain racial harmony. The choice was clear: Bull Connor, firehoses, and bombs vs. a simple and peaceful request for basic rights. “Free at last!” cried Martin Luther King, and a few years later the specific freedom—legal freedom—for which he marched was obtained.
But the blessings of that freedom fell far short of expectations. Now, forty years after the passage of the crucial civil rights legislation, we confront a racial situation in some ways not really much better and certainly far more complex. White racism is far from dead, but it has no legal sanction or official power. For the most part it doesn’t dare show its face (although I’ve seen recent signs that this is changing, as some white people try to assume to themselves the prized status of victimhood). Yet far too many black people live in a state of cultural pathology at least as bad as that of the 1950s at their worst, and for which the blame cannot easily be laid upon whites. Now there is no straightforward measure to be taken, no law to be passed, no barrier to be removed, that anyone seriously believes could make a large and immediate difference.
I don’t know what the solution is—I don’t even in fact believe that there is A Solution, but I believe there must be and can be improvement. As Sly and the Family Stone sang in the late ‘60s, we got to live together. We don’t have a choice. Africans and Europeans are, in effect, married in the United States of America; we are, whether we like it or not, one flesh, and we must find a way to get along. As in a marriage, the only way to bring this about is love. And I suspect that the only avenue for the attainment of that love, or at least of an understanding of its necessity, is a broad and deep revival of Christian faith. Secular materialism cannot, in the long run, nourish or encourage much beyond the desire to take care of oneself and one’s own. Its love is a doomed impulse, not a law.