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Tired of the injustice

Fifty years ago Rosa Parks inspired African Americans by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, and her example is still inspiring Aboriginal people today

On 1 December 1955, a Thursday night in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks, 42, boarded a bus to head home. It had been a long hard day and she was tired. She and three other African Americans sat in the fifth row, the farthest forward they were allowed. After a few stops the first four rows were filled with whites and a white man was still standing. By law in Alabama black and white could not share the same row. The other three stood. She refused.

The bus driver threatened to call the police. Everyone else stood up except her. 'Go ahead and call them,' she said, 'I'm not moving.' The police came; she was arrested and later charged. This was not the first time an African American had protested against racial discrimination or refused to give up their seat on a public bus. But this time was to prove different.

Rosa was a committed Christian who belonged to the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She had worked with Dexter Nixon, secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and enjoyed considerable respect in her own community. When she later said, 'Our mistreatment was just not right, and I was tired of it,' she gave voice to a feeling many others could share. This time, facing a driver who had refused her once before because she would not enter the bus by the rear door, she realised she had taken an important step. She was found guilty and fined $14.

Her charge, violating a city segregation code, provided the opportunity for a legal test case in the United States Supreme Court. However, the result of that challenge remained more than a year away. Her arrest touched and encouraged others to act, and within three days a boycott of Montgomery buses had been called. On the evening before the boycott, a young Baptist minister stood up and spoke to a large assembled church gathering. 'There comes a time,' he reminded them, 'when people get tired.' He added: 'We are tired of being segregated and humiliated; tired of being kicked about by the brutal feet of oppression.' The speaker was 26-year-old Martin Luther King. Ordained a Baptist minister at 19, Nobel Peace Prize recipient at 35, assassinated at 39.

Later that night the enormity of the challenge was revealed. Any protest, the assembled group realised, would need to stand up against the violence that continued to be expressed by white people and institutions towards them. And, as if that wasn't enough to contend with, the protesters also had to consider possible retaliation by their own people. In many cases they were the ones most directly affected by the hardship of a bus boycott.

As the imminent danger and risks dawned upon them, King would later recall, 'The clock on the wall read almost midnight, but the clock in our souls revealed that it was daybreak.' Whatever his oratory that night, and whatever the skills and energy others brought to that meeting, it was Rosa Parks who provided the moment others could identify with and support. She was not the only one who was tired.

The Montgomery bus boycott went for 381 days and proved a success. In many ways it launched a significant but painful chapter in the journey to achieve American civil rights. In the following decade there was King's letter from Birmingham Jail ('there comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over'), his 'I have a dream' speech ('In spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream'), and the 250,000 people who gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to hear him that day in August 1963. There was the 'bloody Sunday' demonstration in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965, the hundreds of school children and teachers who protested and who were arrested that same year. There were the many young university students who were spat upon, abused and assaulted as they protested non-violently against racial inequality and injustice.

Three of those students were Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney. They were only in their early twenties when they entered Mississippi in January 1964 to support the right of people there to register to vote. 'Nowhere in the world is the idea of white supremacy more firmly entrenched, or more cancerous, than in Mississippi,' Schwerner said.

In June 1964, after returning to visit a community whose church had been burned down by the Ku Klux Klan, these young men, including one African American, were stopped by the police for speeding, jailed for a few hours, and then released. In a plot between the local deputy sheriff and the Ku Klux Klan the three were later ambushed, beaten, shot and buried in an earthen dam.

Edgar Ray Killen was involved in organising the Klan around those deaths. On 22 June 2005, 41 years to the day after the deaths of the three young men, a jury found him guilty of manslaughter. After having been arrested with 19 others in 1964, he was released in 1967 after a jury was not able to come to a verdict. Three young students had been tired of living with an injustice that violated the rights of African Americans and, like Martin Luther King, had paid the highest price for seeking justice. The American legal system, after 40 years, might also seem to have tired of avoiding the truth and denying the racial violence of its past.

Martin Luther King's death in 1968, and the deaths and sacrifices of many others, have served as a reminder that the costs of achieving civil freedoms and justice can be very high. As King had once said to Rosa Parks, shortly after the bus protest began: 'If a man doesn't have something that he'll die for, he isn't fit to live.' King gave people reason to hope for a better society, but he also provided a challenge against the personal and institutional violence that so often prevented the possibility of achieving that society.

It was not just the violence of injustice that he and others faced; it was the temptation to respond in kind. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. Facing the violence of others, and allowing those moments of resistance to potentially transform the one who continues to be violent, proved significant examples of the power of non-violence in those long years of struggle.

Some may think it's a long way from Rosa Parks to Australia, 50 years later. Maybe not. In late 2004, a group of Aboriginal footballers from the Australian Football League visited Broome, Western Australia. There they listened to Pat and Mick Dodson talking about the history of struggle for civil and political rights by Aboriginal people in this country. Someone dared to ask: 'How can we make a difference?' Pat told them the story of Rosa Parks. Her single act, her courage to take a stand on injustice, proved the catalyst for an enormous shift in civil rights consciousness and action. It also encouraged others to act. Michael Long happened to be at that meeting in Broome.

Long was not yet born when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955. His own journey from the Northern Territory to the AFL was as a footballer who played in two winning Grand Final teams for Essendon. Then, as now, he has enjoyed the respect of many within the sporting and larger community. He is remembered for confronting Damian Monkhurst in 1995 and taking a stand against racial vilification. Other Aboriginal players would later say that his stand that day made it easier for them to play in the AFL.

But like many other Aboriginal people Long lives another story. He was born in the north of Australia to parents who were both taken away from their families and traditional lands. Not surprisingly, he once responded with anger to the Prime Minister's dismissal of the need for an apology for the Stolen Generations. He lives and embodies some of the consequences, the pain and frustration of that separation history.

In December 2004, Long walked from Melbourne to Canberra to meet the Prime Minister, John Howard. 'We need action,' he said. 'We can't wait. People are dying.' Like many others, he was tired of the rhetoric and frustrated by the denial and the lack of attention to Aboriginal rights and needs. He wanted old, and often forgotten, issues affecting Aboriginal people to be put back on the political agenda. He was hoping Australians might unite around health, education and employment for Aboriginal people. He, like Rosa Parks, was tired. He wanted to let other Australians know he was tired. He particularly wanted to let the Prime Minister know.

The winds that blew those hopeful sails of reconciliation in 2000 have now become quieter and less powerful. The million or so Australians who walked for reconciliation that year appear to have become weary of body and spirit. Yet the social and justice challenges for Aboriginal people remain. Rosa Parks sat, Michael Long walked. At the heart of their decision to act was their tiredness. They were tired of what they had experienced and what had not been achieved for their people. Tired of politicians and leaders who promised words but offered little action. Not tired enough to give up, but tired enough to draw a line and take a stand.

Michael Long hopes to walk again on Sunday, December 4, 50 years after a bus ride that led to a nation's discovery of something new and hopeful about itself. Who knows what might happen, especially when people are tired?

Brian F. McCoy sj is a Fellow at the Centre for Health and Society, University of Melbourne.

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