Remembering the Lessons of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks

A first-hand witness recalls what Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King were fighting for, and how that message has been distorted today.

I don’t like to admit it, but I’m 71 years old. That means I have personal memories of things—first hand—that many may only have read about or think of as ancient history. I remember exactly where I was on January 22, 1973, the very day the Supreme Court imposed the slaughter of the innocents on our poor country in the Roe v. Wade decision. 

I remember watching the Apollo Moon landing in 1969 on live TV. I have a living memory of when John F. Kennedy was shot on November 22, 1963, and even when Pope Pius XII died in 1958. I saw Elvis live in the early 70s and the Rolling Stones in 1965. (Of course, you can still see the Stones live, if you want to watch a bunch of old geezers prance around trying to act like teenagers!) We just finished Super Bowl 56; I remember the very first one!

I also actually remember Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, at the end of 1955. And I remember the year-long bus boycott that followed—overseen through nonviolent resistance (on his side, inspired by his Christian values and by Mahatma Gandhi’s example) by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King—with all the tension and troubles that followed. Not that I remember all this clearly—I was between five and 11 years old during this time—but I was there and I remember what it was like in those days. 

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My dad was stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, from 1954 to late 1961. I think it is appropriate, during Black History Month, to recall those bygone days and to consider the importance of these celebrations and why we hold them. MLK day and Black History Month are not—or should not be—merely partisan affairs; they are of universal importance and thus should be rejoiced in and celebrated by all people of whatever race, color, or ethnic background, as I hope to show.

As things unfolded in the late ’50s and early ’60s in Montgomery, I remember some of the upsets, the fiery crosses, the threats, the tension, and the federal troops sent in 1961 after local trouble in response to the Freedom Riders. It was quite a shock to look out the window of our school bus (at age 11) on the way to Our Lady of Loretto elementary school in downtown Montgomery and see Army jeeps with fully decked out, gun-toting soldiers in them. Was there war?

So, I want to share with you some personal experiences from those times, anecdotes that might not appear in your average history book but which illustrate, I believe, society as it was then and why we ought to honor and be grateful to those who heroically, and peacefully, strove to change it. The efforts of men and women like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Mrs. Rosa Parks should be remembered with gratitude not just by members of their own race, but also by members of the white race, and by all members of the human race. What they did was a chapter in an age-old battle for the recognition of basic human rights. So, let me share a few things and alternate with some reflections on them.  

By the way, it’s worth remembering at the outset (considering our current situation and concerns) that Dr. King and all of his inner circle were steadfastly pro-life when it came to abortion in those days, as is his niece Alveda King today. She has called abortion “womb-lynching”—a very provocative term in the history of the Black race in America.  

Now, Maxwell Air Force base, where I lived at the time, just outside Montgomery, was actually like a little island of the North set down in the middle of the deep South. Segregation was forbidden on the air base, including in the transportation system. Our parents educated my sister and me against prejudice and discrimination. Historically, as I discovered later, Rosa Parks herself actually got some major help and inspiration, before the bus troubles, from a married couple at Maxwell for whom she worked for a time as a maid.

But, outside the confines of the air base, it was truly the world of To Kill a Mockingbird, and that’s the atmosphere I experienced from ages five to 11. At times, I found it strange and irrational. For instance, I noticed that in the back of the Montgomery Ward store (where Rosa Parks also worked for a while), there were separate elevators, escalators, bathrooms, water fountains, and so forth, all marked “Colored Only”—in the language of the day. Even by age 10, I wondered why people would spend all that money to duplicate all those services! It just seemed to be a complete waste. Especially now, looking back on it, in a capitalist society supposedly dedicated to profit, it amazes me how much money was spent just to maintain a social prejudice.  

Sometimes, however, it wasn’t just strange but frightening. I remember, probably at age seven or eight, being thirsty and approaching a water fountain for a drink. I didn’t think a thing about it, even though I could read the sign above the fountain. But just before I got myself a drink, a complete stranger grabbed me by the back of the neck, ripped me away, and said angrily, “Can’t you read, boy!” He pointed to the sign that said, of course, “Colored Only.” 

I had never been accosted by a complete stranger before in all my (admittedly short) life, and I found it somewhat traumatic. I was scared. What would’ve happened if I’d taken a drink? Would I have been punished? Arrested? Ostracized? Ridiculed? Why would some passing stranger grab me like that when my parents had not been concerned? Why did he think he had the right, or feel the need, to do that? It was scary, but it also made me a bit angry. Why couldn’t I take a drink from any water fountain I wanted? This prohibition was certainly an affront to all African-Americans, but I felt like it was also an affront to me personally.

Prejudice and segregation hurt the victims, obviously, but they also hurt, injure, and limit the perpetrators. For instance, who do you feel more sympathy for, the Jewish people who were the victims of the Nazis during the holocaust (the Shoah) or the Nazis themselves? The Jewish people of course. Who was more pathetic and awful? The Nazis of course. Those who live out of prejudice impoverish their own lives as well as the lives of the oppressed. That’s why both sides have to be grateful to those who lead the charge to change such injustices.

Further, as far as uncomfortable situations go, my sister Lenore, two years older than I, relates the following. She sometimes would ride on the public buses in the segregated days and remembers that often when she was sitting in the front (which was almost empty) and all the African-Americans were crowded in the back in standing room only, it made her feel very out of place and uncomfortable. Why should she be treated like some kind of a princess, lounging among 24 empty seats, while other people, including those whom she had been taught to show special respect for, like the elderly, had to stand? She felt like she should get up and offer her seat to her elders, but that would have been unheard of!

During the bus strike (against this Blacks-in-the-back rule), lasting almost the whole of 1956, it was eerie riding through the streets of Montgomery and seeing all the African Americans walking (by the hundreds!). Most had no cars, but no one would ride the bus, in peaceful protest. 

Now, we had a young African-American lady who came to our home every day, partly as a helper around the house but primarily to take care of my 94-year-old grandfather since both my parents worked. Grandpa couldn’t be left alone. This lady was a wonderful person! During the bus strike, she would walk to work—to us—every morning, partly out of a feeling of responsibility for my grandfather, whom she had grown to love and respect. I know it was a long walk. We couldn’t pick her up in the mornings, but my dad would drive her home in the evenings that whole year. 

However, there were strict guidelines about such things. She had to sit in the backseat. No white man would dare drive through town, in that toxic atmosphere, with an African-American woman in the front seat. As children, it was again confusing to us because, as far as we knew, kids sat in the back, adults sat in the front. But in this case, my sister and I would sit in front with Dad—this was also considered “safer” than having a white man alone with a black lady, even in the back seat. We felt this to be strange and uncomfortable, but my dad knew that he would be in big trouble if any hint was given of even the appearance of being a mixed “couple” or a mixed “family.”

The reason I mention this about our reaction as children is to emphasize that people are not born racist. They have to learn it. And if they do, it twists and distorts their view of reality and of other people. And it impoverishes them. As I’ve said, not only the victims are hurt by discrimination but also the oppressors. They hurt themselves by behaving in ways unworthy of human beings, ways which are ugly and ignoble—and thus they make themselves ugly and ignoble. This is why we of the white race also must be thankful for those who led the cause to stamp out such ugliness and why we should honor and remember them today—to help stamp out such ugliness in us, an ugliness which needlessly impoverishes and divides all concerned.

Let me share some further examples of the problems in Montgomery at the time—and this first one is hard to believe. One evening, our family was out for a drive around town as a pleasant pastime (this was before TV became so all-pervasive). As we drove, we were playing spelling games for fun and to build vocabulary. We sort of got lost and turned down an unknown street that was very poor and unkempt. It was basically a ghetto. 

However, as we soon discovered, it was a white ghetto and as such had to be completely separated from the neighboring black ghetto. How? Well, as we drove down the block looking for a side road so we could turn around, we instead came up against what I can only describe as a minor version of the Berlin Wall! The houses of the white ghetto ended and a 10- or 12-foot wall arose, cutting through the neighborhood and going right across the street, completely blocking it! On the other side was the black ghetto. I’m not a student or historian of the time period, but as I’ve said, that’s not the kind of thing I often see reported in history books; yet I saw it—and I was really stunned.

But this was the world outside the air base. Again, at my grade school, even though Catholic, the surrounding culture also entered in by osmosis. Take, for example, when the students chanted the little ditty:

Eeny meeny miny moe,
Catch a tiger by the toe,
If he hollers let him go,
Eeny meeny miny moe.

Sometimes the local kids would substitute the “N” word and not think too much about it. Most of them, I would “like” to think (but I don’t know), didn’t really intend to be mean or hateful; it was just part of the atmosphere—though they knew better than to sing the song that way if any of the nuns were around, so they knew it wasn’t right.  

Even in Catholic school with the nuns (and I say that because it was supposed to provide us with better values—that’s why our parents sent us there) it just doesn’t always work out that way 100 percent. When I was a “patrol boy” to help the younger kids across the street, we had special uniforms we could wear to school when we were on duty and special flags to stop the cars. Our uniforms, officially approved, were Confederate Army replicas (I’m afraid I still have a picture) and our flags were of the Confederate battle flag! It is very embarrassing to look back on, but at the time, in that atmosphere, all the negative connotations of these things were not brought out publicly as they are now. They were just accepted by the local milieu.

Reality is stranger than fiction sometimes. Things really happened that you might think were exaggerations if you read them in a work of fiction or saw them in a movie. For example, I was on football, basketball, and baseball teams for Maxwell AFB, which played against teams from around Montgomery (sponsored by Piggly-Wiggly, Montgomery Ward, etc.). It wasn’t unusual for those of us from the air base to be called N-lovers by the opposing teams because the families on the air base paid a significantly better wage (a fair one) to the African-American maids who came to clean and help around the house. The locals resented that highly, as if we were setting a bad example and arousing false expectations.

Now, my question today is why should we remember all this? We honor, of course, a great, and peaceful, African-American minister who helped to put an end to a terrible injustice. (Now, that doesn’t mean that MLK was a saint. He had his blind spots and personal failings—as do we all, and as do many eminent men. But he was a great leader and reformer in this movement for freedom and dignity, and he deserves to be honored for it.) 

But, someone might argue, after all the ugliness, the riots, the inflamed hatreds and divisions that followed in the ‘60s and beyond (even until today), isn’t all this just a negative now? When we honor Martin Luther King and Black History Month aren’t we just reopening old wounds, causing more division, needless resentments, driving people further apart for no good reason by remembering the injustices of a half a century ago? In remembering old injustices and hatreds, aren’t we just encouraging hatred and retaliation now? Aren’t we just encouraging negative forms of “black power” or “black pride” at the expense of unity? Hasn’t it all become too partisan? These kinds of objections have in fact been raised in some quarters, and I understand why; but I think they don’t see deeply enough.

Such objections do point toward real dangers today, especially if unleashed in the political arena (perhaps for manipulative purposes or purely for power and influence), but my point is that there are deeper positive reasons—not involving just partisan political power but universal human rights—to recall the injustices of the past and those who struggled to eradicate them. So, too, with Gandhi—his struggle was not just for political power between the British and the Indian peoples. Rather, his was a witness to basic and universal human rights. 

Now, a certain amount of partisanship is understandable in that one would not want the injustice done to one’s own people to be “generalized” to the point of being overlooked, as if to dismiss the Shoah on the grounds that “people have been oppressed since the beginning of time,” nor to seemingly equate the oppressor and the oppressed, as if one would say to a Jewish victim, “Hey, Nazis are people too.” This would provoke anger and upset. 

Nonetheless, the basis for universal human rights is human nature itself, not skin color or ethnic origin. This truth has been very deeply expressed in MLK’s classic “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” and famous “I Have a Dream” speech, wherein he argues for universal human rights and respect. It would cheapen and dishonor the work of those like Gandhi or MLK or Rosa Parks or the heroes of the struggle against the Nazis to reduce their struggles to partisan political considerations. So, we must remember them on a deeper and more important level.  

I’m reminded of a memorial I visited once in Paris that is dedicated to the Jewish people persecuted by the Nazis in France. Actually, it was over 50 years ago when I saw it, but I still remember it vividly to this day. To enter, you walk down a long, white marble staircase to an exhibit at the bottom—pictures, films, and so forth, where you see what was done to fellow human beings—then you turn and have to climb up a corresponding long, white staircase to get out. As you go up the white stairs with white walls and ceiling, you naturally look up to see how far away the exit is. In large, black lettering above the exit are the simple words, “Pardonne, n’oublie pas.” That is, “Forgive, do not forget.” That’s the thought you can’t help but leave with, after reviewing all the horrors.

And that is why we remember past injustices and those who heroically fought them. Not to inflame hatreds all over again, not to cause more trouble, but to humbly and realistically acknowledge what we ourselves are capable of in how we treat other human beings and to remind ourselves of the need for forgiveness. We—any of us—are capable of great evils in dehumanizing other persons, or whole classes of persons. It has happened many times in the past, and it can happen again. We should be aware of this—and fear it. 

The treatment of blacks and Jews are the most evident recent historical examples. But one could also speak of Stalin’s treatment of the kulaks, the treatment of the American Indians, of the Australian aborigines, of the handicapped, of women in history at times, or of the unborn today—sadly, the great civil rights issue of our time. 

When any person is dehumanized, treated as a deficient human, a non-human, a sub-human, as vermin, as a parasite, as a disease, as a thing, as a non-person, as a waste-product, as an animal, then we are all under assault in our most basic human dignity. For a chilling study of such ways of speaking (and multiple examples thereof), see “The Semantics of Oppression,” from Dr. William Brennan’s book Dehumanizing the Vulnerable, When Word Games Take Lives.

One last thought, to help bring this home to each of us here and now. In his great work The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel-prize-winning Russian author, describes how inhumanly the political prisoners in Soviet Russia were treated by Stalin’s secret police and prison guards, whom he describes as “torturer executioners”—and he puts them on the same level as the Nazi concentration camp guards. However, after this strong criticism of others, he says: “And just so we don’t go around flaunting too proudly the white mantle of the just, let everyone ask himself: ‘If my life had turned out differently, might I myself not have become just such an executioner?’” (Page 160). He says it’s a sobering thought if you consider it seriously. In other words, we can’t just point the finger at others and walk away feeling self-righteous. We each have the “potential” to go over to the “dark side”—to us a Star Wars reference, and it’s no joke.

So, for instance, by referring to Maxwell AFB as “a little island of the North set down in the middle of the deep South,” that doesn’t mean that the North was free of prejudice. Prejudice can take strong but subtle forms beyond mere legal prohibitions. The violent race riots of the ’60s (and beyond, to the present day) in Los Angeles, Detroit, and other cities outside the South show that the problem was much more widespread.  

For another example, even closer to home, I have noticed that the original deed to my house in Steubenville, Ohio, built in 1955, has a clause in it (now struck through) forbidding sales to African Americans! Or again, while it is true that my sister and I were formally “educated” against prejudice by my parents and in our school, nonetheless, who knows how much confusion and error we subtly absorbed from the surrounding culture. “Cleanse me of my unknown faults, O Lord,” it says in Psalm 19. Disease is catching, health is not. We might all be in need of more purification than we think!

Therefore, let us honor this month a great civil rights leader of his time, Martin Luther King, and those associated with him, like Rosa Parks, who helped reaffirm the dignity of each human being. We should not give in to prejudice and injustice just because it predominates in a culture. As Rosa Parks said, explaining her refusal to move to the back of the bus, “I was just tired of giving in.” She added, “When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.” And this is how we have to be now about the denial of human rights to any class of people—including any ugliness lingering from past prejudices and any new assaults on human rights and dignity, such as the denial of rights to the unborn, which I think is at the center of the struggle for human dignity in the 21st Century.

But my point in making this pro-life reference is not to inject just some further partisan perspective into a political argument, but rather to say that anyone who is “pro-life” ought to be pro-MLK, pro-Rosa Parks, and pro-Black History Month. Or again, anyone who is “for” the Jewish people in their fight against oppression, ought to be “for” the Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s, ’60s and beyond. Those who honor the movie Schindler’s List about the Shoah should also honor Red Tails about the heroic Tuskegee Airmen. The fight for equal rights, as exemplified in the Civil Rights movement, was never a mere partisan thrust for political privileges. It has always been part of the universal struggle for human rights—and so it is right that we celebrate, as one nation for all, Black History Month and its heroes.

Naturally, these considerations about universal importance and solidarity with all human beings in their basic rights works both ways. Therefore, those genuinely concerned about the plight of African-Americans, of the Jewish people, of Native Americans, of the aborigines, of women, of the disabled, etc., should also be passionately concerned for the plight of the unborn today. Abortion is not just a partisan political issue, it’s not just a “Catholic” issue. It is a universal human rights issue we all should support. May it be increasingly so.  

  • Michael J. Healy

    Michael J. Healy is Professor of Philosophy and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.

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