Saturday, February 21, 2009

Letter to the Editor on the Occasion of Rosa Parks' Death

Rosa Parks and Elizabeth Jennings: they were neither old nor tired, but resolute and determined. They both decided to stand up so that we all could sit down together. And though more than a century separated them, they were united by a defiant spirit that made them pathfinders for their generation, sisters to all the pathfinders, male and female, who came before them.

It’s time that America got to know them both, being careful not to diminish their individual accomplishments while we restore the lines of continuity; wed them to the other spirits of the times; educate our children to the facts and remind our citizens of their shared responsibilities. We must bear witness to freedom fires that burn in our collective hearts. As a nation, we can best lead by example, when we live our history together, not in separate neighborhoods. Both the story tellers and the historians have a responsibility to see to it that their work reflect the inclusion we profess but find difficult to practice.

In 1854 Elizabeth Jennings with a friend Sara Adams boarded a trolley car on what was then third street in New York. She described the experience in her own words:

Sarah E. Adams and myself walked down to the corner of Pearl and Chatham Sts. to take the Third Ave. cars; I held up my hand to the driver and he stopped the cars, we got on the platform. When the conductor told us to wait for the next car; I told him I could not wait, as I was in a hurry to go to church. … He then told me that the other car had my people in it, that it was appropriated for that purpose; I then told him I had no people. It was no particular occasion; I wished to go to church, as I had been going for the last six months, and I did not wish to be detained. He insisted upon my getting off the car … but I did not get off the trolley.

What ensued was a struggle involving Elizabeth Jennings and the conductor. When he was unable to break her grip on the window that she was holding, the conductor ordered the driver to fasten the horse and help him. Together they succeeded in throwing both Jennings and her friend off the train, inflicting bodily harm upon both of them.

Jennings sued the transportation company, and with the help of members of the black community and a future president, Chester A. Arthur, her attorney, won her case in court. Subsequently the transit segregation laws in New York city were abolished. This fight was won at great risk to blacks in the city, for while New York was a free state, New Jersey was a slave state and there was always the danger that blacks could be kidnapped and taken across the river.

A little more than a hundred years later, Rosa Parks continued to fight for the same seat on another bus. Now that her earthly remains have been laid to rest, it’s important that history embrace the memory of both Mrs. Parks and Mrs. Jennings. Both demanded a seat on the bus so that we can stand together as a nation. And although death has claimed their bodies, it cannot extinguish their indomitable spirit.

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