Let’s step away for a minute from the seemingly never-ending stream of those newly infected with COVID-19 and, worse, those dying from it. Let’s pause from those trying to get vaccinated to deter the spread of this disease and from the incessant debate among political leaders about how they will do the most important thing they have to do: take care and respect their fellow citizens.
Yes, let’s step away and gather our emotions for a moment to reflect on a woman who last week would have celebrated her 108th birthday, a quiet symbol of accomplishment in a confrontation that never quite seems to end.
Because Rosa Parks stood her ground more than half a century ago against legally endorsed racism, America is a better place, and our people are closer to being the equals they were designed and defined to be.
Rosa Parks is but one hero among thousands whose name is celebrated every February, when governments proclaim Black History Month, groups organize programs, the arts underscore the majesty and power of our heritage and sometimes small but powerful steps to equality are remembered and reinforced.
We have been accustomed in recent years to public pageantry and school programs and performances staged to remember the journey we have embarked since the cruel inhumanity of slavery and the Civil War, through the era of Jim Crow that embarrassed us as human beings to a time when at least most laws are in the right place if not yet all hearts.
The pandemic will deter that celebration somewhat this year. We won’t be able to gather for those presentations, although organizers are trying their best to keep up the spirit and offer their options in new and unique ways. How do you think Frederick Douglass or Harriett Tubman would have reacted to appearing on Zoom?
But half a century after Rosa Parks took her seat on that bus and declined to move when ordered to do so, how much have we actually learned from that moment and used that lesson to advance society to a more perfect union of our multiple cultures?
In 2021, if we use this annual celebration to review what we have learned in the past year about how our communities have embraced the Black culture and show they appreciate the journey from the days of slavery, here’s what we know:
Too many of us haven’t come nearly as far as we should have.
What we have known in the past as random and ridiculous acts of violence against people of color became an all too vivid recurrence in full and embarrassing public spectacle in 2020.
We saw callous and ill-informed – that seems too mild – vigilantes take actions that stole lives for no other purpose than because a bile of historic fear and loathing had overtaken the judgment of the moment and left them to their own base instincts.
We saw those vile examples played out in a south Georgia neighborhood, in a downtown street in Minneapolis, in an Atlanta suburb, in an apartment in Louisville, Ky., and in countless backyards and front yards where people were attacked, assaulted and assailed because someone so consumed by stupidity and inhumanity couldn’t govern their hatred of someone different from them.
Many of you decry the protests that followed those individual and collected moments. You blame segments of society for the burning and destruction of property by those who were the angriest. There were unacceptable responses, to be sure.
But sometimes in considering those responses we as a society didn’t appear stop to think about why that anger existed. Some simply became angrier about the protests, whether peaceful, ridiculously violent or stupidly reactionary, and were ignorant to why they were happening.
We then saw some of our leaders respond in varying levels of incompetence, inconsideration and incoherent insidiousness.
And, as much as anything or anyone, those our leaders proved to us just how much we all still have to learn to be a functioning society of equals.
So this month, when we celebrate the great moments of history, from the eloquence and power of Douglass and Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. to the quiet persistence of Parks and countless others, let us also remember the errors of our ignorance as a reference point in Black history.