A Hero for All times!
A Remembrance of Two women who changed America
In the past few days Rosa Parks and Vivian Malone passed from this life into legend. And what a legacy they left to Americans in general and women in particular. If the story of the advance of white women from a disenfranchised group with a tenuous status under law to political and economic empowerment in the twentieth century is a subject worthy of celebration, the story of black women is a marvel. Having to bear all the stigma and oppression that comes with being a member of an oppressed caste, they still had to deal with the problem of gender discrimination that was the sole lot of white women. It’s sort of like saying Sid Charesse did every step Fred Astaire did, except she was wearing spiked heels and dancing backward.
Yet in spite of the multiple handicaps Afro-American women endured, numerous sisters have arisen from their ranks to give leadership in many fields. Among these sisters are moral visionaries who have led the nation to higher ground: Rosa Parks and Vivian Malone are prominent among them. Like Angela Davis and Condoleeza Rice, Rosa Parks and Vivian Malone were Alabama women. Their intelligence and strength speaks volumes about the character of the black community in which they all came of age during the period when caste discrimination based on skin color was sanctioned by the law of the land.
It was a dangerous time for a black person in America, an era when one’s color was deemed a crime and blacks could offend their white citizens just by the act of living. Thus violence, even of the murderous sort, was promiscuously employed to maintain the system of white domination. This was the racial climate in which Rosa Parks stood up and challenged the system of white privilege in Montgomery Alabama that sparked the modern Civil Rights Movement. Since it was this movement that called Dr. Martin Luther King to leadership, and I was in Atlanta when both of these icons of the Civil Rights movement passed, I decided to seek out somebody from the Southern Christian Leadership Council for a comment.
Through the good offices of J.O. Wyatt, a former County Commissioner and jazz promoter, I got at chance to talk with Reverend Dr. Joseph Lowery, a man who had walked with Dr. King into many a poisonous southern snake pit in battle for justice, at his office in the elegant, art laden, black owned, Atlanta Life Insurance building. Now 84 years old and semi-retired, Lowery knew both women and when he spoke of them poetry and wisdom flowed from his mouth like water gushing from a Roman Fountain. “Ithink it was no accident that we call Rosa Parks the Queen mother of the Civil Rights movement,” he said, “because her role was clearly pivotal and triggered the modern Civil Rights movement. The Montgomery bus boycott was direct action and introduced the era of self-determination for the black struggle.”
Lowery explained that before Mrs. Parks challenged the etiquette of segregation in Alabama by refusing to rise from her seat so that a white man could be seated, black people had relied on the legal strategies of the NAACP to redress their grievances. “Prior to the boycott sparked by Ms. Parks the black movement was directed by the courts and legislative decrees,” Rev. Lowery recalls. “The bus boycott took the position that it didn’t matter what the courts, or the legislature said we were not going to tolerate injustice any longer; and it was the witness of Rosa Parks, the willingness to let God use her for this purpose. Perhaps with the passing of Mrs. Parks we will develop a new commitment to taking our destiny in our own hands today. If Rosa Parks’ life meant anything, it is that we need to turn to each other rather than on each other.”
Reverend Lowery’s remarks remind us of the central role the liberation theology of the progressive African American church has always played in the struggle for black liberation. And it also serves to point out the failings of the reactionary other worldly religion that is running rampant all across the south today. And these are joined by legions of what moral philosopher Cornell West calls “Constantinian Christians” on the Republican right, who slavishly genuflect before the princes and powers who pervert the essential message of Jesus Christ to “heal the sick, feed the hungry, and treat thy brother as thy self.” Arrayed against this formidable phalanx of impassioned Christian Soldiers to their right, the prophetic Christianity that inspired Dr. King and Mrs. Parks to speak truth to power, and lay their bodies on the line in the service of justice, is under siege.
The decision of Vivian Malone to enter the University of Alabama was prompted by what Mrs. Parks and the black folks of Montgomery had done. When she enrolled in BAMA in 1963 it was only 8, years after the Montgomery Boycott. Although her attempt to attend the University prompted George Wallace to stand in the doorway and declare “Segregation Forever” while a howling mob egged him on, Vivian Malone, armed with a court order won by the brilliant black female attorney Constance Baker Motley, along with her male companion James Hood, pressed on and made history.
On May 30, 1965 Vivian became the first black person to graduate from the University of Alabama in its 134 year history. Like the majority of the black southerners who defied the segregated order, Vivian was also deeply religious. Many years later she would recall “I was never afraid because God was with me.” Reverend Lowery said of her: “Vivian was the very essence of grace and charm if she had lived in the days of Greek mythology she would have been the goddess of Grace, if she had lived during the kingdoms of Timbuctoo and Mali, she would have been an African Queen; however God chose for her to live in the exciting era of the Sixties, so she became both: Goddess of grace and an African queen.” We all owe both of these ladies a great debt for having helped to civilize America society.